How Did Worms Survive Columbia Disaster?

ByABC News
April 30, 2003, 10:13 PM

May 1 -- 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 belowthe 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.