How Did Worms Survive Columbia Disaster?

The survival of thousands of worms — part of a scientific experiment aboard Columbia — is one of the few bright spots for scientists since the Feb. 1 breakup of the space shuttle.

The canisters containing the worms had been found among the wreckage of the shuttle, but the live worms were only discovered this week, when scientists at the Kennedy Space Center finally opened the canisters. They were part of an experiment called BRIC — Biological Research In Canisters — to see how long worms could live in space unattended.

The worms — a species known as C. elegans — normally live seven to 40 days, but set a record surviving 20 to 100 days. Some of the worms recovered this week are actually descendants of the original generation launched into space on Jan. 16.

Terri Lomax, NASA's chief space biologist, is elated by the discovery.

"To find some of this science, recovered under these circumstances, with usable data, is a big thrill," Lomax said.

‘The Most Pampered Worms in History’

The worms were housed in 13 aluminum canisters, which were located just below the mid-deck on Columbia.

The location of the canister is important, because that is where the OEX recorder was found. The OEX recorder has turned into a "black box" yielding valuable clues to what was happening to Columbia on launch and re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere, when the space shuttle disintegrated over Texas.

C. elegans are so small they can barely be seen — slightly bigger than the tip of a pencil.

The worms were living in petri dishes packed into canisters. The dishes contained a synthetic material designed to help them live longer. It worked.

What is now intriguing will be what new discoveries come from the survival of C. elegans. When all seven astronauts aboard Columbia perished, what made it possible for these worms to survive the extreme re-entry — and can that be applied to human space flight?

Does this mean other experiments will be recovered? It's possible, but unlikely now.

"These are the only live experiments that have been recovered from the debris search," said Cathy Watson, a NASA spokeswoman at the Johnson Space center. Columbia's last flight was primarily a research mission, with almost 60 scientific investigations conducted on board.

What will happen to these worms now? "They will be the most pampered worms in history, well-fed and well-housed," said Lomax.

The search for debris in East Texas is finished for now. The debris recovery office is moving from the city of Lufkin to the Johnson Space Center. So far, 78,000 pieces of debris have been recovered, which is about 40 percent of Columbia's dry weight.

Investigators are about a week away from announcing a formal working hypothesis for the accident. Background briefings by investigators indicate they are leaning toward a scenario that starts with the foam debris from the shuttle's external tank.

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