In the early days of space exploration we know that monkeys and dogs had been launched into space, but did you know that our six-legged friends have also made that journey into the outer reaches? According to Wikipedia and NASA’s History of Animals in Space, 18 different insects have been sent to space since 1960. This includes insects from 6 orders (Diptera, Hymenoptera, Coleoptera, Phasmatodea, Lepidoptera, Blattodea) and all life stages (eggs, larvae, and adults).
Some of the experiments involving insects in space have examined the animals’ response to microgravity. A recent publication examines ants and their behaviors in space, observing that possible changes in their sense of smell in a weightless environment may be the cause of their reduced searching behavior. While observing insect behavioral differences in space has been done, and continues to need further exploration, it would be far more interesting (at least for entomologists) to look specifically at their antennal responses in space. Do insects in space perceive the same compounds differently in space than on earth? How would insects find their food source or pollinate flowers in microgravity or on Mars?
These “tip of the iceberg” questions is exactly why people like me should be launched into space. What are my qualifications? Other than the fact that I am tiny and don’t eat much, I am a recent PhD graduate from University of California, Riverside in Entomology. While my specialty is medical/veterinary entomology, I also have a strong background in insect behavior and chemical ecology. In other words, I am an expert at observing insects; seeing what makes them behave; and how to get them to behave. I started in the Reiskind Lab at North Carolina State University this past fall examining filth fly chemical ecology and behaviors.
In case you couldn’t tell, this blog post is trying to make a case for why we need an entomologist to join the ranks of astronaut. NASA recently announced open positions for astronauts and will be accepting applications until February 18, 2016. Of course, I submitted an application because why not?
To ask why an entomologist would be necessary on a manned mission would be like asking why a botanist should be a crew member. If you’ve seen the film The Martian with Matt Damon, you would know that the only reason his character Mark Watney had even a chance of surviving the baron Mars planet by himself was because of his mad botany skills. His survival hinged on an area of science that even his fellow astronaut crew members joked was not a “real” science.
As The Martian seems to suggest: The future of space exploration may lead to the possible colonization and occupation of other planets by our species. Currently, we seem to have our hopes set on the red surface of Mars. Yes, we need our physicists and engineers to craft and pilot the contraptions that make getting there possible, but once we arrive, there needs to be a viable settlement for continued survival. This can only happen if there is a sustainable ecosystem that can support life. It is in dealing with these questions that the life sciences really shine. Bugs and plants are one of the corner-stones of sustainable life here on Earth – it is an observable fact. Would they be equally viable on another planet, in a different part of the solar system? As a biologist, I can help answer those questions.
Editor’s Note: NASA, I am pleading with you not to take Dr. Kim Hung. We need her here. MHR