One small step for a bat, one giant leap for batkind

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A bat that was clinging to space shuttle Discovery’s external fuel tank during the countdown to launch the STS-119 mission remained with the spacecraft as it cleared the tower, analysts at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center concluded.

Based on images and video, a wildlife expert who provides support to the center said the small creature was a free tail bat that likely had a broken left wing and some problem with its right shoulder or wrist. The animal likely perished quickly during Discovery’s climb into orbit.

— Siceloff, Steven. “Bat Hung onto Shuttle During Liftoff“, NASA/John F. Kennedy Space Center, March 17th, 2009.

bat_sts_external_tank02But oh, what a death.  A free-tailed chiroptera, immortalised forever in the annals of spaceflight.

Interestingly, this is not the first attempt by the flying mammals to get into orbit. A previous bat-astronaut landed on the shuttle Columbia during the countdown for STS-90, but aborted his ride-along when the engines ignited.  This latest hitchhiker apparently stuck to his mission profile, at least past the launch gantry.

NASA was not able to confirm whether the bat made it into space, or was sloughed off as the shuttle accelerated through supersonic and hypersonic flight on its climb to low earth orbit.

What is clear though, is that on that glorious day of March 15th, 2009, this bat went higher, farther and faster than any other chiroptera.  And for a brief moment, he became the greatest bat-pilot anyone had ever seen.

UPDATE:

“In the hours before Discovery’s liftoff, NASA’s Final Inspection Team (called the “ICE team”) investigated whether the creature would pose a risk to the shuttle if its body impacted the orbiter’s sensitive heat shield tiling. Ultimately, NASA officials signed a waiver confirming that the bat was safe to fly with.

“The bat eventually became ‘Interim Problem Report 119V-0080’ after the ICE team finished their walkdown,” the memo said. “Systems Engineering and Integration performed a debris analysis on him and ultimately a Launch Commit Criteria waiver to ICE-01 was written to accept the stowaway.”

This isn’t the first time a bat has attempted to travel into space. Another bat was seen clinging to the side of the external tank attached to the shuttle Endeavour on its  STS-72 flight in 1996. That one maybe have been a bit more cautious, though: It flew away to safety right before launch.

Coincidentally, an astronaut aboard that flight, Koichi Wakata of Japan, also flew on Discovery this week, making him the first spaceflyer to share two rides with bats. Discovery’s STS-119 mission is headed to the International Space Station to drop off the final segment of the lab’s backbone truss and set of solar array panels.”

— Clara Moskowitz.  “Bat’s fate after shuttle launch appears grim“, MSNBC/Space.com, March 18th, 2009.

Go with God, 119V-0080.

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