Space used to be considered the “final frontier.” Now it’s just the hardest place to visit for your travel blog—unless you explore space vicariously, through furry little friends, that is.
Let’s begin at the beginning of this space odyssey. For many breeds of scientists, nowhere is off limits—as long as they can do their research there. For example, astrophysicists and meteorologists can be found frolicking among the penguins of Antarctica, while, for decades, NASA scientists have roamed the otherwise desolate desert of Arizona. Think Biosphere 2, the geodesic dome built in the arid town of Oracle, Arizona:
All neuroscientists love research, and most have at least one more thing in common: their love of travel. That’s why they love to see test animals, like white mice, get the opportunity to explore space.
Mice, it turns out, are far more mobile than you may think. Many of the world’s lab mice are bred in a small town in the state of Maine. Some of these small creatures will become adventurers—to the envy of some neuroscience grad students. Bar Harbor is the hometown of mice sent on assignment to Labs around the world, where scruffy grad students from Holland, Kenya, Japan, and practically everywhere else in the world, get to observe these little critters’ relationships with their cute, inbred partners.
These days, life for our science-y mouse friends is even more glamorous: not only are they jet-setting around the world, but they’re being recognized as mini astronauts! For years now, scientists have been sending mice beyond the stratosphere, to the International Space Station, for example. You could say these critters have a pretty nice gig at the Space Station: from their specialized zero-gravity cages, the rodent-scientists get to watch the sun rise and set fifteen times each day. And whenever they glance down at Earth, it’s with the comfort of knowing that their mouse-brothers and mouse-sisters are waiting for them to return, participating in the control study on Earth. These studies may have been designed as double-blind trials, but let’s face it: if you’re a science-mouse in space, you know exactly which experimental group you’re in when you see your droppings float up, not down.
When it comes to space cuisine, you could say mealtimes are about the same for human astronauts as for the mouse variety. Humans in space rehydrate their food with recycled urine, which, despite the way it sounds, ends up being tasty. Meanwhile, mice get to enjoy their favorite—and their only—food: chow pellets.
Compared to people, space-mice have a much easier time getting aboard the International Space Station. While human astronauts must endure brutal physical conditioning and endless Russian-language lessons, the only thing mice need is to be in the right lab at the right time—no Cyrillic grammar required.
On May 30th, 2020, two American astronauts, bound for the International Space Station, launched into space. This was celebrated as the first American space launch, in an American rocket, crewed by Americans, in nine years. That’s how the mainstream news reported it, in any case. In reality, a mere two years ago, in 2018, a cohort of 20 American mice blasted off from Florida on a research mission aboard a SpaceX rocket. The rodent-scientists, though, were surely watching proudly last May, as their human protegees followed in their footsteps. After one giant step for mice, it was a small step for mankind.