This week, we noticed an interesting trend emerge here at Verge Science: we wrote a lot about frogs and a lot about space. Well, we wrote two stories about frogs, but that’s way above the frog story average for a typical week, which usually hovers around zero. Because of this week’s affinity for Kermit and microgravity, it didn’t take us long to ask a very natural question: have frogs ever been to space?
Since I am a journalist, I decided to use all of the amazing research tools at my disposal to answer this very important question. I Googled "frogs in space." Lo and behold, multiple videos of frogs trying desperately to hop in microgravity popped up. Turns out that frogs have been going to space on US and Russian rockets for quite some time, starting as early as the 1950s.
After an afternoon of intense study (about 10 minutes), I came across what I deem is the greatest use of frogs in space: the Orbiting Frog Otolith spacecraft. This vehicle, shaped like a circus-themed R2D2, carried two male bullfrogs into lower Earth orbit in November 1970. The plan was to study how the frog’s inner-ear systems — which are sensitive to gravity and movement — change in microgravity. Space is known to make people motion sick and mess with their sense of balance; NASA wanted to study these effects in frogs, which have similar inner-ear structures to humans.
The Orbiting Frog Otolith spacecraft. (NASA)
But the way NASA pulled off this experiment was kind of nuts. The researchers surgically implanted micro electrodes in the frogs’ inner ears, so they could study the electrical responses of the ears’ sensors. The frogs were then encased inside a water-filled tube called a "centrifuge," which doesn’t look very roomy based on these artistic renderings. Also, it was imperative that the the frogs didn’t die during the trip, so the entire apparatus was designed to keep the two amphibians alive for six days as they experienced periods of weightlessness and partial gravity. To simulate that gravity, the frogs were sometimes spun up to 50 revolutions a minute to produce half a G-force.
And to top it all off, the frogs never made it back to Earth. On the seventh day of the experiment, the onboard battery failed and the spacecraft was never recovered. So thanks for your contribution to science, frogs! Hope you had fun.
Still I shouldn’t feel bad for those two. At least they got to experience what space feels like, something most frogs (and people) will never get to do. Plus, some poor frogs experience the effects of space travel without actually going to space.