Discovery's Surprise: Did Bat Hitch a Ride to Space?

Little winged mammal clung to Discovery's fuel tank at liftoff.

ByABC News
March 17, 2009, 9:31 PM

HOUSTON, March 17, 2009— -- The bat, seen clinging to the external fuel tank of the Space Shuttle Discovery before its launch on Sunday, apparently clung for dear life to the side of the tank as the spaceship lifted off.

And what a ride.

The shuttle accelerates to an orbital velocity of 17,500 milers per hour, which is 25 times faster than the speed of sound, in just over eight minutes. That's zero to 100 mph in 10 seconds.

Did it make it into space? No one knows yet. But photos of Discovery as it cleared the launch tower showed a tiny speck on the side of the tank. When those photos were blown up, it became apparent that the speck was a bat.

Flight director Paul Dye said no one has seen the bat since.

"I heard that it was clinging to the tank at liftoff, but I don't think anyone has seen it since," he said.

Launch controllers spotted the bat after it had clawed onto the foam of the external tank as Discovery stood at Cape Canaveral's Launch Pad 39A.

The temperature never dropped below 60 degrees at that part of the tank, and infrared cameras showed that the bat was 70 degrees through the launch.

The final inspection team that surveys the outside of the shuttle and tank for signs of ice buildup hoped the bat would wake up and fly away before the shuttle engines ignited.

The bat is the one goofy moment in a mission that has been flawless so far -- at least after a few gliches forced the launch to be postponed.

STS 119 was delayed repeatedly while engineers struggled with hydrogen fuel control valves, and later, a hydrogen fuel leak, but the launch Sunday was flawless and the mission so far is going as planned.

Discovery docked to the International Space Station and later this week will install the final truss and solar arrays to give the orbiting lab more power, which will allow the crew to expand from three to six.