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NASA Could be “Criminally Negligent” Over Brian the Bat Death

The injured long-tailed bat clings onto Discovery's external fuel tank (NASA)

The injured long-tailed bat clings onto Discovery's external fuel tank (NASA)

NOTE: This was the Universe Today’s contribution to April Fools Day, just in case you were wondering. However, it isn’t a joke that a bat died during a shuttle launch. Brian will forever be remembered by the Brian Bat Foundation

On Sunday, March 15th, Space Shuttle Discovery launched from Cape Canaveral, beginning the highly successful STS-119 mission to “power up” the International Space Station (ISS). Unfortunately, a tiny stowaway was discovered clutching onto the external tank of the shuttle and refused to budge. For the whole of Sunday, NASA waited for the free-tailed bat (unofficially named “Brian” by yours truly) to fly away. Alas, Brian held on to Discovery all the way up to launch. NASA even took a photo of the shuttle as it cleared the launch tower, Brian still attached. He wasn’t frozen to the external tank (infrared images showed the bat was warm), a wildlife expert studied the last pictures of Brian, informing the space agency that Brian had in fact suffered a broken wing and was unable to fly away, even as the rockets ignited.

Although NASA was not thought to be responsible for the death of the little animal at first (calling the whole incident “sad but unavoidable”), a Florida state official is pursuing legal action against the ground staff at the Cape. According to state animal protection law, NASA may be charged with negligence, after making little effort to prevent “animal interaction” with the launchpad and apparent unwillingness to remove Brian by hand before launch. However, as investigated by the local press, there are far more animal deaths during shuttle launches than we realise…

NASA can be prosecuted under the same animal protection rules that cover Florida highways (Ian O'Neill)

NASA can be prosecuted under the same animal protection rules that cover Florida highways (Ian O'Neill)

First and foremost, the safety of the crew must be ensured,” said NASA spokeswoman Francis Rae, “it is unfortunate that the agency could be reprimanded over the death of an animal, but in the interest of safety and smooth launch operations, we will enact any preventative measures deemed necessary by the state.”

It turns out that NASA is a little shocked that a Florida official has decided to pursue the issue. NASA and Florida have enjoyed very close ties ever since the beginning of the Space Age and this is the first accusation of criminal negligence over the death of an animal (possibly in reaction to the huge international interest in the story). Little did the agency realise that the death of one unfortunate bat could land them in court.

NASA enjoys total freedom of the airspace above the state, however the agency must still abide by the laws of the state, no matter how insignificant the rules may appear when compared with the endeavors of US activities in space.” — Statement by the District Attorney’s Office, Florida

According to local press, NASA can be fined for the preventable death of the bat under the same state laws that govern goods transportation (i.e. company-owned vehicles are liable if they hit endangered animal species on Florida highways). Therefore, if a truck hit a free-tailed bat on a freeway, and the driver was pulled over by a police officer, the company who owns the truck would be accountable. “This is exactly the same rule that is being applied to NASA, a free-tailed bat was killed during the operations of the shuttle. In the county’s eyes, that’s no different from a Walmart truck running over a protected animal. Like a cougar [the state animal],” reported the Orlando Sentinel.

The Ares V at the launchpad, including the possible configuration of the anti-bat mesh (NASA)

The Ares V at the launchpad, plus artist's impression of what the anti-bat mesh would look like on launch day (NASA)

Regardless of the outcome to the possible legal action, NASA has already prepared plans for an anti-bird/anti-bat mesh that will surround the launchpad after exterior inspection but before launch. This is where NASA tripped up, they performed an inspection on Saturday, March 14th, of Discovery’s external tank, but the pneumatic cranes (used to lift inspectors to the upright shuttle) were removed from the launchpad on launch day. Therefore, if NASA had to remove Brian by hand (if they knew he was injured), the Discovery launch would have been delayed further still, to wait for cranes and personnel to arrive on the scene.

This preventative measure isn’t thought to affect the remaining shuttle launches (before the shuttle is decommissioned in 2010), but the mesh will be built into the launch tower of the Constellation Program scheduled for launch in 2015 (pictured above).

Estimates place the cost of the mesh at around $10 million,” said Rae. “However, if you factor in unforeseen project overruns and design issues, that cost could easily triple. Possibly more. We simply do not have the technology to fabricate such a large, lightweight net. It will, however, be worth it in the long-run.”

It would appear the mesh couldn’t come too soon for one NASA employee. Soon after Discovery launched on that fateful Sunday night, the Orlando Sentinel interviewed launch safety officer Aniline Lo who went into some detail about the real costs of a shuttle launch.

“…of course animals die during launches. We’ve had collisions with eagles during ascent, we’ve even found dead rats, mice and gophers left on the pad, there has also been injuries to some larger animals in the past. As the Cape is surrounded by water, it is hard to prevent alligators straying too close […] shuttle exhaust can hurt these reptiles, making them difficult to treat. It also seems the flash from the boosters cause confusion in some animals, including rabbits, actually attracting them to the launch pad at lift off. That always ends very badly.” — Aniline Lo, NASA Safety Officer

Lo then went into detail about the clean-up operation after launch. “It’s a shame, the adrenaline is pumping through your body before launch, but it is up to my team to clear up the mess which is the downer,” she said. “If you thought roadkill was bad, imagine it roasted. Hundreds of thousands of dollars post-launch could be saved in man-hours [for clean-up operations] if these animals are prevented from getting near to the rockets.”

The sad story of Brian the Bat captivated the world, but it looks like his demise was the tip of the iceberg. He was first named on the social networking site Twitter and on Astroengine.com. On launch day @DiscoveryBat appeared on Twitter, apparently tweeting from space and tweeting to this day. Even mainstream media refer to the ill-fated free-tailed bat as “Brian”. Consequently, the Brian Bat Foundation was set up to recognise animal endeavours in space. However, it appears the Foundation’s scope must now be extended to all the birds, angry alligators and rabbits on, or near, the shuttle’s launchpad during lift-off.

Source: Orlando Sentinel


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Hello! My name is Ian O'Neill and I've been writing for the Universe Today since December 2007. I am a solar physics doctor, but my space interests are wide-ranging. Since becoming a science writer I have been drawn to the more extreme astrophysics concepts (like black hole dynamics), high energy physics (getting excited about the LHC!) and general space colonization efforts. I am also heavily involved with the Mars Homestead project (run by the Mars Foundation), an international organization to advance our settlement concepts on Mars. I also run my own space physics blog: Astroengine.com, be sure to check it out!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • steve April 2, 2009, 9:40 PM

    I think Brian the Bat was doomed as it was and common sence should be shown. however with the hippi crowd screamimg about anything they can get their hands on no wonder common sence takes a back seat on such occasions. For all we know Brian was as thrilled with the ride as i would be. NASA should save their money and stand up for themselves for once as they can. its another stupified win for the minority.