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Water Bears in Space

What are they doing there?

Can earthly life survive in the vacuum of outer space? At least one creature can: the tiny water bear, a microscopic creature whose official scientific name is the tardigrade.

Water bears first went into space aboard a space shuttle in 2007. On Monday, once again, they joined the crew of the shuttle Endeavor, from where they will then be sent into the vacuum of space to be bombarded with cosmic radiation.

Water bears are amazing creatures. Less than a millimeter long, their natural abode is water. But they do fine on land or in the air as long as there’s a trace of water around them. And when there’s absolutely none, they can shut down almost all their systems to survive in a totally inhospitable situation. Even, it turns out, in space.

The Endeavor experiment is sponsored by the Italian Space Agency, and managed by Professor Roberto Guidetti, who says this will help us learn how we could adapt to long voyages in space.

“Tardigrades can persist for months, or even for years, in the anhydrobiotic (no water) state,” Guidetti said. “When in the desiccated state, tardigrades show a high resistance to physical and chemical extremes.”

Certainly, if we humans are going to be spending lots of time in space, it would be helpful to know all we can to be able to cope with the dangers. But what does this have to do with water bears? Did they volunteer to go on space flights?

We talk of astronauts and cosmonauts being very “heroic” as they take on the risk of traveling into the beyond. But we heroic humans have never taken on the heroic risks of being the first earthlings into space. Before we ever ventured there ourselves, we sent dogs and chimpanzees. And today, almost every shuttle flight has animals on board, all “volunteering” to help us learn more about the hazards of space.

Earthly animals don’t belong in space. If we want to explore the heavens, that’s a daring and admirable thing to do. But it’s tarnished when we say to other animals, “You go first.”

What do you say? Should we be sending animals into space – even microscopic ones? Let us know in a comment below or on Facebook.