Fascinated by Insect Behavior in Space, Teenager Todd Nelson Got Nasa to Make Room in Its Bird for His Bees

updated 03/29/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/29/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

During its scheduled third flight this week, the Columbia space shuttle will carry gear for eight studies devised by scientists from academe and industry. Behind the ninth experiment, however, is an 18-year-old high school senior in rural Adams, Minn. named Todd Nelson. He was one of 10 winners (out of 1,500 entrants) in a competition aimed at creating student interest in the big bird as a research tool.

NASA hopes eventually to carry out all 10 student experiments on shuttle flights. In Todd's, cameras will record the behavior of two kinds of bugs—delicate velvet bean caterpillar moths and hardy worker bees—in the weight-lessness of space. Nelson raises bees and builds and flies radio-controlled model airplanes on the small farm in nearby Rose Creek, where he lives with his parents (his father is a beer distributor). Having read about the NASA contest on a science class poster, Todd worked up a proposal involving bees and dragonflies. After he won the space agency's nod, Honeywell experts and his science teacher suggested replacing dragonflies with moths, which would be more likely to mate and reproduce on the seven-day flight.

Todd expects that his test will "raise more questions than it answers" about the effects of zero gravity on insects' mating habits and navigational ability. He notes that on earth bugs tend to orient themselves according to both their sense of gravity and the direction of light sources. He expects that his insects will appear confused at first, then attempt "some sort of flight" toward a lamp in Columbia's mid-deck section.

What was Nelson's main prelaunch concern? He says that he's had "bad dreams about the astronauts' being stung and not being able to land" if the bees escape their plastic case. But not to worry, he deadpans: "We have had all the bugs tagged. If they do get loose, we'll be able to take a roll call."

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