Roaches Invade Space!

Never mind John Glenn. The featured attraction on Discovery's upcoming flight, at least for a few Maryland teen-agers, is a bunch of creepy cockroaches.

While all sorts of insects have flown in space ants, wasps, bees, flies, crickets, worms, even a mosquito that sneaked aboard a shuttle four years ago, this is the first time cockroaches are deliberately being sent aloft. (A cockroach infiltrated Mir a few years back.)

"Everybody snickers about cockroaches," said Carolyn Harden, a former biology teacher who is coordinating the shuttle project at DuVal High School in Lanham, Md. But the point is to get students to think of this as "serious science." The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, in fact, is picking up the $5,000 tab.

The cockroaches are the big, dark brown, Southern-style variety and the offspring of laboratory-bred specimens. The students are flying three adult cockroaches, three juvenile cockroaches and three cases containing as many as 60 eggs.

That's how many there were, anyway, when the students loaded up the bugs in July and sealed them inside a can with dog biscuits, water, a mirror and video camera to record their movements. "If they've been doing the biologically correct thing," Harden said, the adults should have laid more eggs, which should have hatched. And so forth and so on.

The No. 1 question for the students, not NASA is whether cockroaches can rocket into space and make it back alive. No. 2 is whether they can reproduce in weightlessness.

On this flight at least, Glenn and his six crewmates have nothing to fear: The cockroaches are in a sealed container in a sealed can way out in Discovery's isolated cargo bay.

"They won't be infesting space, so the world can take a deep breath and relax on that score," joked NASA payload coordinator Rud Moe.

The teen-age experimenters are used to laughs over their cockroaches-in-space project.

The presence of Glenn adds legitimacy, not to mention "automatic publicity," said Russell Alderson, 17, the chief cockroach handler who is coming to the launch.

Few of the 11 students now involved in the project knew who Glenn was before he was assigned to the Discovery flight. After watching the nightly news, they came to know the 77-year-old senator and original Mercury astronaut as, "Oh yeah, that old guy who's going up in space," Harden said, laughing.

Once they get their bugs back, the students plan to keep the survivors in terrariums at school, comparing their behavior with those that stayed behind as part of a control group.

"Frankly, from a scientific standpoint, I'm not sure that nine days in space is going to show a significant change," Harden said. "If it was a longer flight ... we might have something to talk about."