When you launch a human body into space, sometimes that body become sick with nausea and general disorientation in the first few days. After a time, the body is better. This is the space version of seasickness. Because gravity holds our feet to the ground, we humans basically move in two-dimensions on Earth. So it may not be surprising that when you launch our bodies into gravity-free three-dimensional movement in space that our stomachs lurch and our heads spin.
In the 1970’s the National Association of Space and Aeronautics (NASA) wondered how zero gravity would affect fish, animals that moved in three dimensions on Earth. Does a fish get space sick? For this important aquatic mission, NASA needed a fish that required little care but could endure the stress of a space launch and time in space. NASA first considered the goldfish, but they were not tough enough. NASA instead chose a drab, humble minnow found in salt marshes called the mummichog, Fundulus heteroclitus. It is not a fish prized as bait or aquariums so it is not well known. But if you’ve ever waded in the Bay of Fundy in Canada or Chesapeake Bay or the Gulf of Mexico in the U.S. and saw schools of minnows darting between your legs, then you met the first fish in space.
On July 28, 1973 at 7:11 a.m., the engines on the Saturn 1B rockets fired and the ground of Cape Canaveral, Florida, trembled. As the space shuttle lifted, the thrust pressed three American astronauts - Alan Bean, Owen Garriott, and Jack Lousma—into their seats. It also pressed the world’s first aquanauts, two juvenile fish and fifty fish eggs, against the walls of their small plastic aquariums. The rockets launched the astronauts and aquanauts into space for the second manned mission for Skylab (a mission confusingly called Skylab 3), the first scientific laboratory to orbit Earth.
When the two juvenile fish arrived at Skylab, they swam in elongated loops as though they were the spinning hands of a Salvador-Dali created clock. Without gravity the fish didn’t know which way was up.
On the third day, the fish swam in regular patterns, always with their backs towards the interior lights of the Skylab. In many animals, including the two-legged kind that build rockets, gravity tugs on special cells in the inner ear and tell the animal which way is up (away from gravity). This is called the vestibular righting response. Without gravity to tug on their inner ears, mummichogs relied on artificial light to tell them what direction was up. Using fish logic this is reasonable. The sun never shines from bottom of the ocean.
Looping appeared to be the fish’s version of space sickness. Humans, like fish and other animals, rely on our inner ears for balance and orientation. When ocean waves or lack of gravity disrupts our signals, we become disoriented and often ill. As the mummichogs looped, the astronauts vomited. As the urge to vomit subsided in the astronauts, so too did the urge to loop in fish. By the fourth day in space, both human and fish had found their bearings. The fish swam in their small, plastic aquariums in space as though they had been there the whole time.
Would the unhatched fish be space sick and loop when they were born? The astronauts found out by their third week on Skylab, when 48 of the 50 eggs hatched. These tiny mummichogs did not loop. They immediately followed their older cousins and used the light for orientation. The fish fry having learned the up-is-where-the-light-comes-from-trick as embryos. Only when the astronauts shook the aquarium did the fish fry, apparently disoriented, began swimming in loops, only to return to swimming with their backs to the light.
I am a saltmarsh ecologist and know the mummichog well. It does not surprise me that the mummichog was the first fish in space. For the mummichog, space is only the next logical step for a fish that has tried to conquer land.