Columbia Survivors

Categories: Extreme Life

Flight hardware for STS-107. a: Diagram showing plates strapped together using Nomex/nylon Velcro and placed inside anodized aluminum canisters with Teflon bumpers. The box-shaped device on top of the strapped plates is a temperature logger. b: A flight canister with the lid removed. c:The flown canisters assembled into a tray that was placed in half of a space shuttle mid-deck locker.
Credit: Mary Ann Liebert, Inc.

On board the Space Shuttle Columbia mission STS-107, researchers were studying the growth and reproductive behavior of the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans, but the mission ended in tragedy in 2003 when the shuttle broke up during reentry. Remarkably, the worms, housed in specially designed canisters, survived the virtually unprotected reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere and were recovered alive during the extensive recovery effort following the crash, as reported in the December 2005 (Volume 5, Number 6) issue of Astrobiology, a peer-reviewed journal published by Mary Ann Liebert, Inc.

A team of scientists comprised of Nathaniel Szewczyk, Rocco Mancinelli, and Catharine Conley from the NASA Ames Research Center (Moffett Field, CA), William McLamb and David Reed from Bionetics Corporation (Kennedy Space Center, FL) and Nobel Laureate Baruch Blumberg from Fox Chase Cancer Center have co-authored a paper entitled, "Caenorhabditis elegans Survives Atmospheric Breakup of STS-107, Space Shuttle Columbia" that documents the amazing recovery of the experimental worms, which are commonly used in biological studies and are being developed as a model system for space biology research.

Living C. elegans recovered from debris. a: Arrested dauer and L1 animals that had been grown on NGM. b: Reproductive animals that had been grown on CeMM. Note the damage to the agar in the upper left corner, presumably due to forces associated with impacting the Earth’s surface.
Credit: Mary Ann Liebert, Inc.

The scientists were studying a novel liquid growth medium called CeMM and its potential for use in enabling automated experiments on C. elegans during future spaceflights. The organisms not only fared well during the planned spaceflight, but live C. elegans were also present in canisters recovered from the shuttle crash site in Texas, despite exiting the spacecraft at a height of 32-42 kilometers above the Earth’s surface and traveling at velocities ranging from 660-1,050 km/hour.

"This is a very exciting result. It’s the first demonstration that animals can survive a reentry event similar to what would be experienced inside a meteorite. It shows directly that even complex small creatures originating on one planet could survive landing on another without the protection of a spacecraft," says Catharine Conley, Ph.D., Biologist AST at the NASA Ames Research Center and Principal Investigator on this experiment.

"The authors of this important work have demonstrated the tenacity with which we all must pursue our goals to further our understanding of the Universe," says journal Editor, Sherry L. Cady, Ph.D., Associate Professor in the Department of Geology at Portland State University.