So long and thanks for all the flies. Photo: NASA/Wallops/Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport.
Behold one of the most stunning photographs in the history of space flight. A frog that was minding its own business next to NASA's LADEE spacecraft last Friday was caught in the updraft as the mission's Minotaur V rocket blasted off. The accidental astronaut was probably hanging out in the “pool” located next to the launchpad at the Wallops Flight Facility, which is there to manage the water deluge unleashed during launches to reduce noise and protect the pad from damage.
In addition to being an epic photobomb, it's also a kick to the emotional crotch. Are we supposed to laugh or cry at this image, which somehow perfectly captures the frog's surprise? It's undeniably funny, but you have to wonder what became of the poor thing. NASA only offered that the image is indeed real and was captured by the remote cameras on the pad. “The condition of the frog, however, is uncertain,” they said.
This frog is only the latest animal to have unintentionally hitched a ride on a rocket. I suppose it could be argued that any of the animal astronauts we've sent to space were unintentional space-travelers – at least from their perspective. But Laika, Baker, the bullfrogs manning the Orbiting Frog Otolith of 1970, and other famous non-human astronauts were at least inside the spacecraft. Others have not been so lucky in their brushes with space fame.
In July 2005, the Space Shuttle Discovery was launched on mission STS-114. Unfortunately, a committee of turkey vultures decided to check the rocket out beforehand.
One of them was caught offguard by the liftoff and struck the Discovery's external tank on the way up.
Luckily, no significant damage was sustained—to the Discovery, that is. The vulture was so confused by the situation that it fell down the whole length of the rocket only to be incinerated by the jets.
The collision could have been much worse, and inspired the Cape Canaveral team to start a bird abatement program to monitor errant vultures around the area. After all, the foam chunk that caused the Columbia disaster was only 1.7 pounds, so birds do pose a significant threat to the astronauts, too.
Shuttle Vulture was the first animal to have a fatal brush with the Disovery, but not the last. The final journey of “Space Bat” or “Brian,” as he is also lovingly known, was also aboard this shuttle.
Space Bat Brian was clinging to the external fuel tank during the countdown to STS-119 in March 2009. He appeared to have a broken left wing, as well as sustaining injuries on his right shoulder and wrist. He definitely picked a hell of a replacement for his own flying capabilities. According to NASA, he did not let go of the Discovery during the launch, and is presumed by many optimists to have made it into space, though it's more likely he fell off and was sucked into the jets at some point during the flight. Still, a Space Bat fan can hope.
Brian was apparently not even the first bat to attempt to stowaway to space. Another, less celebrated bat hitched a ride on the Columbia's STS-90 mission in 1998. But what about animals that actually made it into space by accident?
That's actually a real concern, especially with Martian exploration. Microbes may not be as cute as bats, they are a lot hardier, and the concern of contaminating Mars with hitch-hiking germs is a pressing one. The probes and rovers we've to Mars are sterilized, but if extremophiles can live in subglacial Antarctic lakes, they can probably survive a bleach bath. It would be just our luck to find microbial life on Mars and discover that we brought them there.
There's no telling what animal will be the next to tag along with our rockets. But we're hoping that Brian has a kid out there somewhere who will take up the mantle once more.
For glory. For honor. For Space Bat.