NASA Shoots Legos, Worms And Squid Into Space

Robert Siegel speaks with Julie Robinson, International Space Station program scientist, about the Legos, roundworms and squid embryos riding along on the Space Shuttle Endeavour's last mission to space. The shuttle program is being discontinued. Monday's launch of Endeavour is the second-to-last space shuttle voyage.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

And here's a sound that we've grown accustomed to hearing that's on its way out.

(Soundbite of Space Shuttle Endeavor)

Unidentified Man: Three, two... zero and liftoff for the final launch of Endeavour...

SIEGEL: That is Space Shuttle Endeavour blasting off from Florida this morning on the second-to-last shuttle mission ever. And you may have heard that this mission was added to the schedule to make sure that a certain piece of high-tech equipment makes it to space, a $2 billion device called the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer-2. It'll be measuring cosmic particles.

But we were equally intrigued by some of the smaller carry-on baggage for this mission: Nematode worms, squid embryos and Lego kits.

And we're joined now by Julie Robinson, who's in charge of all of this as NASA's program scientist for the International Space Station. She's joining us from the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Hi.

Dr. JULIE ROBINSON (Chief Scientist, International Space Station Program): Hi. It's a pleasure to be with you.

SIEGEL: Let's start with the worms. Why send worms to space?

Dr. ROBINSON: Worms are a really good organism for study because they have many of the same genes as higher organisms like ourselves do. But they're very small, they're easy to culture and they're understood genetically very well.

SIEGEL: And these worms have a pedigree.

Dr. ROBINSON: Yes. We have had some worms that flew on the Columbia mission, and then they survived the reentry and were able to be cultured. And so these are, many generations later, descendents of some of those worms from Columbia.

SIEGEL: What about the squid embryos? What are they doing on this mission?

Dr. ROBINSON: So some of these organisms are flying primarily for educational purposes. The squid embryos were flown by a set of students that were interested in looking at how those embryos respond in microgravity.

SIEGEL: Uh-huh. Well, the worms and the squid embryos, I guess, are a little bit easier to understand than the Lego. Why will the crew be playing with Lego on this mission?

Dr. ROBINSON: One of the things that we do at NASA that we try to leverage with the excitement that goes with space missions is helping students to learn how focusing on careers in science and technology, the things that they need to do right now to be ready for those careers. And so the Lego partnership is one that we've built with Lego to get the kids that are excited about Legos and excited about space Legos also focusing on some the research and the math and the things that go behind those missions in space.

SIEGEL: But do Lego bricks perform any differently in space than they do on Earth?

Dr. ROBINSON: Well, depends on what you build with them.

SIEGEL: Aha.

Dr. ROBINSON: The Legos will be transferred to the International Space Station. Parts of them have been prebuilt to support some different demonstration activities. And then the astronauts will carry out those demonstrations on the ISS, get video of the demonstrations. And then the video will be brought back to Earth.

SIEGEL: What are the parts that were preassembled that are going up to the space station?

Dr. ROBINSON: Basically, we preassembled some parts just so that the astronaut crews didn't have to spend a lot of time putting everything together to be ready for the first demonstrations.

SIEGEL: You're giving them a break.

Dr. ROBINSON: Right. And we need their time for the other purposes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: I guess so. Someone's gotta look at the worms and the squid.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Well, Julie Robinson, Dr. Julie Robinson, chief scientist at NASA for the ISS, the International Space Station, thanks for talking with us.

Dr. ROBINSON: It's been a pleasure.

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