There's a squadron of velvet bean caterpillars aboard the space shuttle Columbia and, in the name of agricultural research and protection of the environment, Dr. Norman C. Leppla hopes they're making celestial whoopee.
If that occurs, there's a good chance that astronauts Jack R. Lousma and C. Gordon Fullerton will capture the event on videotape, the first entomological X-rated movie from space. Leppla is salivating at the scientific prospect.
As his little menagerie circles the globe, Leppla said from his Department of Agriculture laboratory at the University of Florida, "I want to see how well they fly and whether they'll mate."
Leppla's caterpillars aren't the only offbeat passengers in the Columbia. There are honeybees (from a private beekeeper) and houseflies (from Cornell University), plus 85 sunflower seeds sent up by University of Pennsylvania biologists studying the effects of weightlessness on plant growth.
Houseflies and bees you know about, but the velvet bean caterpillar is less familiar. It is the scourge of the soybean, a major U.S. farm crop, even though chemical pesticides control it pretty well.
Leppla and his colleagues at the USDA laboratory in Gainesville are assigned to develop ways of controlling insects without pesticides. So just about anything, including a trip into space for the caterpillar, is worth a try.
"Videotapes will be made," Leppla said. "The caterpillar cage will come from a drawer periodically and the astronauts will film it on videotape."
It could turn out to be a long-play film, because on Earth the velvet bean caterpillars' mating procedure takes more than an hour, Leppla said. In space, it might turn out different--or more difficult--and the USDA researchers might find a nonchemical clue to controlling the critter.
"We might see some problems in their courtship procedure," Leppla said. "They have problems in coupling....it is very complex. So in space, they will have to reorient themselves."
Enough said. Leppla's explanation gets more complicated. Let's just wait for the movie.