Sunday, November 13, 2011

Dinosaurs In Space!

Did you know that despite disappearing for good 65 million years ago, two dinosaurs have managed to accomplish what you and I have not- they have been in outer space!  OK it might be a bit of a exagerrated headline stunt to say two dinosaurs have become astronauts.  It would be more accurate to say some fossilized parts of two dinosaurs took the super-saver economy fare flight into space in the space shuttle cargo hold.

On July 29, 1985, STS-51-F, the 19th space shuttle launch, sent Challenger up for a an eight-day mission.  On board was kind of a portable space station called Spacelab that NASA occasionally sent up with the shuttle.  The shuttle cargo bay doors would open up and expose Spacelab to outer space while the scientists inside did dozens of experiments.

Space Shuttle with Spacelab module in cargo bay

One of the seven astronauts on board was Loren Acton, a physicist who was born in Montana and had a degree in Engineering Physics from Montana State University.  In 1978, three years before the first shuttle mission even flew, he was selected to be one of the scientists to ride up on the shuttle and work experiments in the Spacelab modules.  He spent seven years training for his flight.  When it was time to go he packed and took along some fossil bone fragments from a Montana fossil dig.  The bones came from a dinosaur called Maiasaura Peeblesorum.

The crew of STS-51-F.  Dr. Acton is in the back row with the beard.  Not pictured- Maiasaura

Maiasaura means "caring mother lizard," and was given this name because they appear to have been very involved in the care and feeding of their young for perhaps a longer period of time than a typical dinosaur.  The babies eventually grew into an adult that was an amazing 30 feet in length.  They spent their days chowing on vegetation in huge herds, possibly numbering as many as 10,000 individuals.  One lucky winner among them got to go on a shuttle ride, to his surprise.


Incidentally, on that same shuttle flight there was a bit of comic relief in the form of some "competition" between Coca-Cola and Pepsi.  Coke designed a type of mechanism that would fit over one of their pop cans and allow astronauts to drink a can of Coke on the weightless space shuttle.  They made an arrangement with NASA to send some cans up on the shuttle so the astronauts could try them out.  When Pepsi got wind of this they convinced NASA to let them join in the fun and quickly designed a weightless dispenser for their own can. 

Pepsi and Coke cans with weightless dispensers attached

NASA promoted it as kind of an experiment in both the practicality of using everyday objects in weightlessness and also a test of whether ones taste perception is altered in space.  Sadly, neither version of the special weightless adapters for pop cans made much of an impression on the astronauts, not to mention that apparently due to a design oversight there was no fridge on the shuttle, so the cans of pop were not even cold.

It would be a 13-year wait before another dinosaur was selected for a shuttle mission.  This time the lucky saurischian was called Coelophysis.  Coelphysis was an early dinosaur and would  have lived about 150 million years before Maiasaura, so he had to wait a long time to get his ride.  Finally, on January 22, 1998 (STS-89) he got his wish and blasted off on space shuttle Endeavor.  A Coelphysis skull from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History was on board.  I was never able to determine if they provided him with a space helmet. 


Coelophysis was a lot smaller than Maiasaura, only about 10 feet long.  Instead of lazily munching on plants all day, Coelophysis darted around and stalked and basically went on a carnivore power trip.  Word is he was not pleased with the menu on the shuttle.  He is particularly revered in New Mexico, where he is the state fossil.

Perhaps to make up for his extra long wait, NASA allowed Coelophysis to one-up Maiasaura by letting him go on board the Russian space station Mir, too.  This Endeavor mission was transferring equipment, astronauts, and trash back and forth with the Mir.  After chilling with the Ruskies a while, Coelophysis eventually returned to Earth and the museum, where to this day you can see him, maintaining his job of standing perfectly still 24 hours a day.

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