Spinning in Space

By  |  June 22, 2016
Photo by Megan Cump, courtesy of Station Independent Projects Gallery Photo by Megan Cump, courtesy of Station Independent Projects Gallery

A Cross Spider Adapts to Microgravity 


 

On August 5, 1973, the eighth day of the Skylab 3 mission, science pilot Owen Garriott floated over to Arabella’s little vial. NASA had custom-built the cross spider a fifteen-inch square cage, the depth of a framed portrait, with a flat glass front. Around the frame were mounts for long fluorescent bulbs and cameras, and at the top right corner was an attachment point for Arabella’s transport vial, which would create a narrow tunnel for her to pass into the cage. Nobody wanted to risk releasing a tiny arachnid into the free space of the orbital workshop, which the crew knew had a mind of its own. 

Though the vial was open, she had refused to move through the tunnel for half a mission day. When the crew couldn’t wait any longer, Garriott shook the vial, jostling her into the glass-front box. She bounced the perimeter of her new home several times, eight legs flailing until they found some mesh at the edges of the cage, which she clutched, immobile, for several more hours.

NASA had spent almost a decade designing the Skylab orbital workshop, and its final blueprint held limited consideration for up and down. Rather than separate the station’s two levels with a solid floor, a cross-hatching of beams split the workshop like an open, metallic net. A long blue pole ran through the center, so the men could pull themselves along the workshop’s forty-eight feet. But commander Alan L. Bean, pilot Jack Lousma, and Garriott scrapped the pole shortly after getting their space bearings. They preferred pushing off the walls and steering with their arms, floating through that empty center to travel from the workshop’s fore level—site of the dinner table, the latrine, and the three booths bolted to the walls in which they slept—to the aft level—with its radio and TV equipment, its biophysics lab, its materials processors, and its odd glass camera box, made just for the young female cross spider named Arabella.

Before launch, Garriott had spent months rehearsing his spacewalks in a drowned Skylab mock-up in Huntsville, Alabama. The day after he shook Arabella into her cage, Garriott shut the airlock room off to the rest of the station, opened the execution hatch, and exited to a place only twenty-five men had gone before him: out into the thermosphere, the “hard vacuum,” the emptiness between Earth and its closest celestial neighbor. A sixty-foot cord spooled from his abdomen, connecting him to the space station.

What he saw between himself and Earth was, in a sense, a distance equal to half the length of the Grand Canyon. In another sense, he saw the equivalent of what a cross spider sees staring over a small asteroid. And in a completely different sense, the science pilot saw “nothing” at all.  

The distance between a man and the moon is a spider hiking the Oregon Trail. The distance from a spider to the end of her six-inch silk tether is a man drifting on a sixty-foot umbilical. A man tumbling from end to end of a space station is a spider free-falling down a four-foot web.

When he returned to the workshop, Garriott discovered Arabella had spun her first web in microgravity.

 

The sixteen-millimeter film of Arabella’s earliest work on Skylab depicts not so much a spider as the specter of one—a black-and-gray arachno-ghost. Eight thin strands glimmer about her body: these are her legs. White dots sparkle from a dozen other faint pinstripes: these are her gossamer. In the film, she tries to free-fall and hang an early radial, with tumultuous results. You see her scurry along a horizontal line, half holding on and half bouncing, until she loses all footing. Then weightlessness floats her above the line. A flailing of legs sends her tumbling in the other direction, sinking lower, though there is no “lower” to a spider somersaulting in a cage in space. She first flips, head over abdomen, then corkscrews, so that her rolling turns sideways. Her legs reach outward in eight directions, then they all move inward, clutching the empty space like one desperate claw. Eventually, she finds the hard purchase of the cage’s corner and tries to locate the stillness there. 

The first web she made was loose and haphazard, a funhouse mirror of her gridded, earth-spun work, where the dragline silk that creates her web holds five times the strength of steel, ounce for ounce, and is at least two times stronger than a human femur. Since she could not feel the weight of her body on the strands, the silk she spun was of varied and impractical thickness. Few of the lines were taut or straight. The web looked like the worn-out shawl of a sideshow palmist, or a sea net from which any fish could manage escape. It was the kind of web only spun on Earth when a spider has just molted, or is quite near her death. It is not unlike a web spun by an amputee spider, or by the spiders that a Swiss pharmacologist spiked with d-amphetamine in 1948.

 

On August 7, the lights came on in Arabella’s cage, simulating sunrise. It was her third full day in the custom-made box, and the air was still charged with that defeating kind of nothing that kept her lines from catching and confounded her body when she tried to rappel. But the walls of the cage were solid in a way she could understand, so she connected a taut bridge line in the short gap between them. The only way to make a web in flight, she discovered, was to avoid flight—to stay grounded.

Clinging to the walls and corners of the cage, she made more short silk lines, pulled them as tightly as she could, walking along them (rather than free-falling) to affix every radial, every spiral turn. She used the length of her hind legs to measure each spiral; each ring matched the distance between her spinneret and the tip of her back claw. The central claws of her third pair of legs clung to the silk like grappling hooks.  

It was a less ambitious web than her first, in certain aspects. She had ringed it in fewer spirals, and omitted the crucial lopsidedness of lining the web-bottom with stickier trapping silk. But the structure was even and tight. Back home, a human face crashing through it could have thought it the work of any earthbound arachnid. 

That day, from commander Bean’s journal: “Arabella finished her web perfectly.”

Bean again, on August 8: “Arabella ate her web last night and spun another perfect one.”  

Footage of her spinning aired on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, who checked in with the Skylab’s progress every night. Her image, perched at the center of an impressive silver-toned web, ran in Science News, Reuters (which called her “Skylab’s star performer”), and along the AP wire. With each web spun, observed, photographed, and transmitted, Arabella held the astronauts and the people of Earth tighter in her grip. NASA originally planned to let her die in space after a few days, but as the Washington Post said, Arabella had “earned the affection of the crew” so completely that “midway through the flight, Owen Garriott asked what could be done to prolong the relationship.” 

Only Arabella could bridge the distance between the crew and the incomprehensible developments of Skylab—their X-ray maps of the galaxy, the Technicolor evidence of holes in the sun. As she steadied her slow steps along the straight line of her webs and gripped the solid products of her body for support, she was walking back to what the people of Earth could understand: an organic narrative of success amid what on TV and in the papers must have seemed a dark and unnatural nebula. She did so naked, assisted by nothing but the tangible: her legs, her cage, the light someone turned on for her every eighteen hours. Dogged and stealthy, the spider was a rare earthly object in that wild and distant nothing. And alongside all the work of the floating men, her own work was weighty and familiar. Arabella’s web was a lifeline to the people of Earth.


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The recipient of a 2015 Whiting Award for nonfiction, Elena Passarello’s work can be found in the Iowa Review, Slate, Normal School and elsewhere. Her book about famous creatures, Animals Strike Curious Poses, was published in 2017.

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