Ah… summer. When the days are long and the sun is relentless and I wish I was on the International Space Station (ISS), which has a space-age climate control system to keep it nice and comfy. 

Of course, back here on Earth, we have windows that open to let in some fresh air, but that cooling breeze can also bring unwanted guests indoors. We have had to fit insect netting to the patio doors, as the local bees prefer not to go around the house to get where they’re going. Any flies that make their way in drive us bonkers with their buzzing until we find a way to usher them out. Why can they never find their way back out the way they came in?

But when we venture outside, we are as much at the mercy of the nasty bugs as anyone else. You know the ones I’m talking about – the mosquitoes and midges that want to feed on your blood, the horseflies with their powerful bite and the tetchy wasps that will sting at the slightest provocation. No doubt they all do an essential job in the ecosystem (did you know that if we killed off all the viruses, we’d die too?), but it would be nice if they could get on with it without bothering us.

So astronauts on the ISS are cool and comfy and safe from insect bites, and stings… or are they?

Fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) are used for scientific research both on Earth and in space.
Credits: NASA/Ames Research Center/Dominic Hart

In 1947, the USA sent fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) into space atop a V2 rocket. The first animals in space, they were part of a series of experiments studying the effects of cosmic rays on living organisms. Since then, humanity has never stopped sending insects into space. They make pretty good research subjects – they’re light and don’t take up much space, and no one complains if they don’t make it back to Earth alive. (Those first intrepid fruit flies did, by the way.)

Any insects sent into space for an official experiment will be well under control, and the astronauts are unlikely to find any fugitive fruit flies snacking on their lunch. But what I wanted to know was whether they had ever been bothered by any unwanted insect hitchhikers?

In July 1975, a historic mission blasted off from Kennedy Space Center. An Apollo rocket lifted three astronauts aloft – Thomas P. Stafford, Vance D. Brand and Donald K. Slayton. They would be shaking hands in space with the crew of a Soviet Soyuz spacecraft. In the meantime, however, they were preoccupied about what to do with a super Florida mosquito that had made its way onboard. Mission controllers suggested they use it as the subject of an improvised experiment. The crew had other ideas.

“We thought we would feed him ourselves for a few days and then feed him to our [experimental] fish. Another alternative is to bring him back alive and give him a pair of astronaut’s wings.”

Astronaut Vance Brand, quoted in the New York Times

What happened to the mosquito? No one knows for sure. The official report said it disappeared and was assumed to have died. One thing’s for sure – it would not have been invited to that first international meeting in space.

Space Shuttle Columbia launches with a fugitive fruit fly onboard. Image credit: NASA

In March 1982, Columbia launched on NASA’s third space shuttle mission. But it had picked up a stowaway at Cape Canaveral, in the form of a fruit fly that proceeded to buzz around the cabin. It was an annoyance, but the crew had more significant issues to worry about!

And speaking of fruit flies… A little while ago, I was talking about STS-61-A, a space shuttle mission that carried ESA’s Spacelab into orbit. It launched at the end of October 1985. On 4 November, normal operations aboard Challenger were disrupted by a fugitive fruit fly the crew named “Smart Willie“. Willie didn’t seem to enjoy its hard-won freedom. Unable to fly in zero-g, it tumbled and floated about and grabbed on to any surface it could find. History doesn’t seem to have recorded much more about Willie, but I doubt it survived to the end of the mission.

Mike Mullane killed a stowaway mosquito during the STS-41-D space shuttle mission. Image credit: NASA

On STS-41-D in August 1984 Mike Mullane took direct action against an unwanted insect passenger onboard Discovery

“And then I see a mosquito, trying to fly in weightlessness. It was August that we were launching. Those mosquitoes down there, just clouds of them down at the launch pad area. So one of them had gotten in while we were strapping in, and it was wiggling around trying to figure out how to fly in weightlessness. And I nailed that thing. Wham! The last thing I wanted to have is a mosquito running around in that cockpit.”

Mike Mullane, via NASA’s Oral History Project

He tells a slightly different version of the story in his children’s book Liftoff! An Astronaut’s Dream:

“A mosquito! Apparently it had flown aboard when the hatch had been open. It looks hilarious trying to fly in weightlessness. It’s upside down and then right-side up and then turning in a loop. 

Here we are just ten seconds in orbit and we already have an emergency. A loose mosquito is definitely an emergency! I laugh to myself. We’ve trained for hundreds of hours in simulators to be ready for every possible emergency. We have stacks of checklists and boxes of tools to get us out of any problem. But we don’t have a can of bug spray! I try to whack our stowaway with my hand but it flies away.”

Either way, it seems Mullane was not keen on sharing his ride to space with an insect passenger. 

bite away

So astronauts don’t often have to worry about bites and stings in space. But for those of us who are unfortunate to be stuck on Earth with the bulk of the insects, there’s always bite away®, a patented medical device for the treatment of itching, pain and swelling caused by insect bite and stings.

[This post was produced in partnership with Bite Away.]