HOUSTON, March 23, 2009— -- RIP little bat.
The furry winged creature surely did not know when it latched on to the side of the Space Shuttle Discovery's external tank that it was going someplace no bat had gone before.
NASA says its fate will always be a mystery, because the umbilical camera that takes pictures of the external tank after separation was broken.
But the bat is now a pop legend -- the subject of a quiz on "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me" on National Public Radio.
Mission Control put a cartoon of the bat perched on the edge of the shuttle's robotic arm captioned "Orbital Bat Sensing System -- the world's first sonar based thermal protection imaging system."
The tiny creature, first noticed during the countdown before Discovery's launch March 15, apparently clung for dear life to the side of the tank while the shuttle launched.
It was quite a ride for the tiny creature.
The shuttle accelerates to an orbital velocity of 17,500 miles per hour, which is 25 times faster than the speed of sound, in just more than eight minutes. That's zero to 100 mph in 10 seconds.
Launch observers hoped the bat would fly away before the shuttle's engines fired, but perhaps it hung on, hoping to fulfill a lifelong dream of becoming a space explorer -- the first Space Bat.
Spiders have gone to space, so have butterflies and nematodes and dogs and monkeys -- so why not a bat?
Did it make it into space? No one knows yet. But a close look at the photo of Discovery as it clears the launch tower reveals the tiny bat on the side of the tank.
Flight director Paul Dye said no one saw the bat on any video more than a few seconds into the liftoff.
"I heard that it was clinging to the tank at liftoff, but I don't think anyone has seen it since," he said.
Space Bat will live on in legend.