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Columbia’s Aquatic Passengers: Only Fertile and Friendly Need Apply

July 7, 1994

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) _ Only the finest, friendliest and most fertile aquatic animals were loaded into space shuttle Columbia on Thursday for a two-week laboratory mission.

The four Japanese red-bellied newts - astronewts, as they’re called - made the cut by beating out their peers in the egg-laying competition. So did the two female Japanese Medaka, a kind of fish, which also had to get along with their two male companions and avoid the looping behavior exhibited by spacefaring fish in the past.

The last thing biologists want in orbit are looping Medaka.

″If you are looping, can you mate? In a merry-go-round? It’s crazy,″ said Japanese project scientist Shunji Nagaoka.

Columbia was due to blast off with all this and more at 12:43 p.m. Friday. Forecasters gave a 60 percent chance of acceptable weather; thunderstorms threatened to delay the launch.

More than 80 experiments are planned for the mission, with more than 200 scientists from around the world participating. The seven astronauts include Dr. Chiaki Mukai, a Tokyo heart surgeon who will become the first Japanese woman in space.

Besides newts and Medaka, Columbia’s passenger list includes six goldfish, 126 jellyfish, 144 newt eggs, 340 Medaka eggs, 180 toad eggs and six toad testes to fertilize those eggs, 11,200 baby sea urchins and 500 flies. An equal number of animals will undergo identical experiments on the ground as a control group.

Scientists are interested in how the animals develop and behave in weightlessness.

Japanese biologists, for instance, want to see whether and how fish mate in weightlessness and what the offspring are like. Medaka tend to mate at sunrise, so lights will be shined into their tank more than half the time to simulate nature.

The small red and white goldfish will be exposed to light in brief flashes so researchers can see how the animals orient themselves in the absence of gravity. Five of the six goldfish have had their gravity-sensing otolith organs removed from their inner ears.

Scientists are also interested in the development of otoliths in the newts and jellyfish.

Dr. Harry Holloway, head of NASA’s life and microgravity sciences office, said the underwater findings should shed light on human development.

After all, he said, all of us ″in our mother’s womb developed in an aquatic medium and in that aquatic medium we developed ... a sense of up and down.″

″It’s that fundamental biologic property that’s being examined in these experiments,″ he said.

Virtually all the animals will be killed for dissection soon after Columbia returns.

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