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Liftoff to Learning: From Undersea to Outer Space

Video Title: From Undersea to Outer Space
Video Length: 15:00
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Description: This program describes a life science experiment using jellyfish. Because of their small size and rapid growth cycle, results of the experiment have provided scientists with a unique window into the process of living things adapting to microgravity.

 Subjects: Research on the effects of microgravity on jellyfish.
  Science Process Skills:
Making Models

Science Standards:
Physical Science
- Position and motion of objects
- Properties of objects and materials
Unifying Concepts and Processes
-Change, constancy, and measurement
- Evidence, models, and exploration
Life Science
-Structure and function in living systems
-Diversity and adaptations of organisms
-Regulation and behavior

Table of Contents


With its June 5, 1991 liftoff, the STS-40 crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia began an exciting mission to understand how living things function in the microgravity environment of Earth orbit. Microgravity is the floating effect that occurs on an orbiting space vehicle where objects seem to be weightless because they, and the vehicle they are riding on, are in freefall. Columbia's principle payload was the first Spacelab mission devoted to life sciences research, Spacelab Life Sciences 1 (SLS-1). It consisted of the Spacelab long module mounted in Columbia's payload bay. The pressurized, cylindrical module was 7 meters long and 5 meters in diameter. It was packed with experimental apparatus and medical instrumentation for use by the mission's seven-member crew.

Medical and life science experiments, flown on many Space Shuttle and Skylab missions, have provided tantalizing clues to how the human body adapts to microgravity in Earth orbit and what changes take place in the body. But often missing from past studies were data on the interrelationships of different body systems in microgravity. The Spacelab Life Sciences 1 mission sought to extend the understanding of the human body in microgravity by conducting studies on seven major body systems. These systems were: cardiovascular/cardiopulmonary, hematological, muscular, skeletal, vestibular, immune, and renal-endocrine.

An important part of the SLS-1 mission included 2,478 jellyfish polyps encased in flasks and bags filled with artificial seawater. They were the subjects in an experiment entitled, "The-Effects of Microgravity-Induced Weightlessness on Aurelia Ephyra Differentiation and Statolith Synthesis."

The principle investigator of the experiment was Dr. Dorothy B. Spangenberg of the Eastern Virginia Medical School (EVMS) in Norfolk, VA. Dr. Spangenberg wanted to learn how microgravity influences the development of tiny jellyfish ephyrae and their gravity receptors as well as the function of the gravity receptors. Gravity receptors enable jellyfish to sense up and down. The sensors have statoliths within them that are analogous to the otoconia found in the inner ears of humans and other mammals. The jellyfish used in Dr. Spangenberg's experiment were of the Aurelia aurita variety.

Early in the mission, crew members injected thyroxine or iodine into the containers to induce the polyps to metamorphose into free-swimming ephyrae. The tiny ephyrae were videotaped to observe their swimming motions for later comparison with control groups on the ground. Upon their return to Earth, scientists began studying the jellyfish to determine if any differences occurred in jellyfish gravity receptors (sensors) that developed in space from those that developed on Earth. (Note: The experiment was followed with a second experiment on the International Microgravity Laboratory mission that orbited Earth from July 8-23, 1994.)

Dr. Spangenberg and her team discovered that ephyrae developed during the flight and were able to pulse and swim in space. Statoliths formed in normal numbers in space-developed ephyrae but ephyrae from Earth lost statoliths in greater numbers after nine days in space than did their Earth-maintained controls. Ephyrae from Earth pulsed faster in space and tended to circle or loop when swimming.

Experiment Facts  contents

Title of Project: Effects of Weightlessness on Aurelia Ephyrae Differentiation and Statolith Synthesis.

Principal Investigator: Dorothy B. Spangenberg, Ph.D., research professor, department of pathology, Eastem Virginia Medical School.

Number of jellyfish launched: 2,478

Number grown for mission: 60,000

Description of Jellyfish: Jellyfish have special structures which enable them to swim and orient. These are called gravity receptors, and they resemble microscopic fingers. These structures have calcium crystals at their tips called statoliths, which move when the animals and the gravity receptors move. These sensitive structures provide positional information to the animal based on the direction of gravity and whether the jellyfish are tilted up or down. It is especially important to know whether statolith crystals form normally in space, since humans have similar calcium-containing crystals (otoconia) in their inner ears which help them maintain balance. In humans, the crystals are not accessible for study during or following spaceflight.

Why Send Jellyfish into Space? Very few studies have been made of developing organisms in space. Jellyfish complete their development at a warm temperature in six days. Many of the developing structures of jellyfish resemble structures of humans, although they are less complicated. Therefore, jellyfish may be used to predict events which may occur in embryos of more complex life forms during spaceflight.

Purpose of Experiment: To determine the effects of microgravity on the developing jellyfish in order to help us understand and prevent the adverse effects of microgravity on biological organisms, including humans. The experiment has also helped us understand how gravity influences development and behavior on Earth. Studies made to determine whether microgravity causes a decrease in the calcium content of the jellyfish and their statolith crystals may help predict a similar calcium deficiency in astronauts. Otoconia crystals are found in the inner ears of humans, but the effect of microgravity on the crystals in humans has not been studied previously.

Procedure: Tiny, baby jellyfish were flown on the Space Shuttle in plastic bags in an incubator. The jellyfish were induced before and during flight to make tiny pulsing and swimming ephyrae from small, slow-moving polyps. During flight, ephyrae developed on Earth (control group), and some which developed in space (experiment group), were videotaped to learn whether they pulsed or swam normally. Following landing, researchers compared the flight and control groups to each other. They studied the development of jellyfish structures, including statoliths; grew new jellyfish through budding; and observed swimming or pulsing movements of ephyrae. (Note: For detailed information on the results of the experiment, refer to the journal articles listed in the reference section of this guide.)

The EVMS Jellyfish Experiment Team:
Dorothy Spangenberg, Ph.D., Principal investigator
Robert McCombs, Ph.D., Executive associate dean, EVMS
James Shaeffer, Ph.D., Professor, Department of Radiation Oncology and Biophysics, EVMS
James Slusser Director, Electron Microscope Laboratory, EVMS
Mike Prokopchak Biology Teacher, Lake Taylor High School, Norfolk, VA
Technicians, EVMS: Brian Lowe, Mark Sampson, Cora Ramiro, Deborah Leete, Anna Shore
Laboratory Aides, EVMS: Thomas G. Shelton, Manisha Trivedi
Volunteers: Mike McCombs, Mark Hughes, Alison Bames

Experiment Hardware: NASA Ames Research Center developed the chemical delivery and videotaping systems. NASA arant #NAG-2343 funded the research.

Terms  contents

Aurella aurita - Genus and species names of the jellyfish studied in the experiment featured in this video.

Control Group - An experimental group done in exactly the same way as a second experimental group but without the variable being tested.

Experiment Group - An experimental group done in exactly the same way as a second experimental group but with the variable being tested.

Ephyra - Early free-swimming stage of jellyfish. (plural: ephyrae)

Gravity Receptors - Structures within many animal forms that enable them to sense the direction of gravity.

Life Science - The science of living things.

Medusa - The adult free-swimming stage of jellyfish.

Microgravity - An environment, produced by freefall, that alters the local effects of gravity and makes objects seem weightless.

Neuron - Nerve cell.

Otoconia - Calcium crystals found in the inner ear of humans and mammals.

Osteroporosis - A bone calcium deficiency disease that affects older adults.

- An early jellyfish life cycle (nonswimming) stage which develops into ephyra.

Statolitha - Calcium crystals found in gravity receptors of jellyfish.

Classroom Activities  contents

The following activities can be used to demonstrate some of the concepts presented in this videotape.

Designing For Spaceflight


Paper and pencils


Challenge students to design a future Space Shuttle experiment using living things as subjects. What animals or plants would the experiment attempt to study? What would the experiment's hypothesis and research procedures be? What would the experiment apparatus look like and how would it function? How would the living things be cared for on the Space Shuttle? Students should submit sketches and descriptions of their apparatus. If time is available, students can construct working models.
Otolith Motion Sensor Model


Wood block (approximately 6H x 6" X 1") 1/8"x 36" Dowel Small solid ball Drill and 1/8" bit Glue


Drill a hole in the ball and in the center of the wood block. Glue and assemble the model as shown in the picture. Slide the block across a smooth surface. What happens to the ball and why? How does this relate to gravity receptors in jellyfish and in humans? What can you do to the device to make it work vertically?
 illustration of set up of otolith motion sensor model

Jellyfish Life Stages


Modeling clay or paper mache Poster board Glue Paints (if using paper mache)


Construct 3-D models of the metamorphosis of Aurelia aurita jellyfish from larvae to medusa. Refer to the reference section for information on these stages or obtain a jellyfish life cycle chart from a science supply catalog.

Note: Several science supply catalogs offer jellyfish for dissection and mounted specimens for study. Live jellyfish may also be available for salt water aquariums. If you do not find a section in the index for jellyfish, look up Aurelia.
drawing of life stages of jellyfish

References  contents

Journal Articles:

Spangenberg, Dorothy, et al., "Graviceptor Development In Space And On Earth," Advanced Space Research, 1994, V14N8, pp. (8)317-325.
___et al., "Development Studies of Aurelia (Jellyfish) Ephyrae Which Developed During The SLS-1 Mission," Advanced Space Research, 1994, V14N8, pp. (8)239-247.
" Jellyfish Launch EVMS Scientist On A Space Odyssey," EVMS Now (Eastern Virginia Medical School alumni . magazine), 1994,V1N4,10-14.


Baker, Diedra, dir. Space Basics, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1991.

- Information on culturing live jellyfish in the classroom is available by writing to: Dr. Dorothy Spangenberg Department of Pathology, Box 1980 Eastem Virginia Medical School Norfolk, Virginia 23501

Principle Investigator Biography

Dorothy B. Spangenberg (Ph.D.): Dorothy Spangenberg, Ph.D., principal investigator for the study of the effects of microgravity on the development and behavior of jellyfish, is research professor in the department of pathology at Eastem Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, Virginia. Dr. Spangenberg received her bachelor and master degrees in zoology and her Ph.D. in developmental biology from the University of Texas. Throughout her 31-year career as a developmental biologist, Spangenberg has studied various aspects of jellyfish structure and development. From 1962 to 1965 Spangenberg was a research associate in pathology at the University of Arkansas, and from 1965 to 1966 she was an associate professor at Little Rock University, Arkansas. Spangenberg was a research scholar at Indiana University from 1966 to 1969, and from 1969 to 1972, she conducted jellyfish experiments at the University of Louisville School of Dentistry, Kentucky. Spangenberg was a visiting associate professor in the department of molecular, cellular and developmental biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder from 1972 to 1977. In 1977, Spangenberg joined the faculty at Eastern Virginia Medical School. Since that time her research has been funded by the National Institute of Health, the National Institute for Dental Research and Child Health and Human Development, the Department of Energy, and NASA. She is a nationally renowned expert on jellyfish and has published many articles on the development of the organism.

STS-40 Crew Biographies

Commander: Bryan D. O'Connor (Col., USMC).
Pilot: Sidney M. Gutierrez (Lt. Col., USAF).
Payload Commander: Margaret Rhea Seddon (M.D.).
Mission Specialist: James P. Bagian (M.D.).
Mission Specialist: Tamara E. Jernigan (Ph.D.).
Payload Specialist: F. Andrew (Drew) Gaffney (M.D.).
Payload Specialist: Millie Hughes-Fulford (Ph.D.).

To obtain biographic information, click on highlighted names


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