Chix in Space: When Kentucky Fried Chicken Hitched a Ride on the Space Shuttle
Updated: May 16
Animals have been flying in space long before humans. Since the late 1940s, countries all across the world have sent all kinds of creatures and critters into the vast unknown, studying the physiological effects of microgravity, radiation, and high stress on living organisms. The Soviet Union used stray dogs, the most famous of which were Laika, Strelka, and Belka. The United States used different varieties of monkeys including Ham the chimpanzee and Miss Baker the squirrel monkey. Even France sent the first cat into space, Félicette. But what about birds?
Official emblem for the Chix in Space experiment (collectspace.com)
The first avian space experiment was actually performed by the Soviet Union. In 1979, Soyuz 32 carried fertilized Japanese quail eggs into space to study the impacts of microgravity on the development of embryos. The space agency also wanted to determine whether a Japanese quail could hatch and grow in space, serving as a viable food source for its cosmonauts on long-duration missions. While the eggs did hatch, most chicks exhibited severe deformities most likely caused by exposure to high radiation levels, as was found in later experiments performed on space station Mir. The first healthy quail chick hatched onboard the station in 1990 and became the first bird in space and the first vertebrate, that we know of, to be born outside Earth's atmosphere. Five more chicks followed. Initially, the baby birds could not feed themselves because they could not latch onto anything in the 0g environment. In later missions they were equipped with harnesses so they could feed, but they showed no interest in mating so the use of quails as a long-term food source was not feasible.
One of the quail chicks hatched during Soyuz TM-9's Mir stay (finchwench.wordpress.com)
As it pretty much always was during the Space Age of the Cold War, the United States was working on something similar. In the early 1980s, a middle schooler from Indiana named John Vellinger designed a science experiment to study how microgravity effected the development of chicken embryos. It was presented at a competition hosted by NASA and the National Science Teachers Association and won. The space agency began hunting for a corporate sponsor to provide funding for the experiment to fly in space. By the time Vellinger was a freshman at Purdue University, NASA arranged for him to pitch his idea to the fast-food giant Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC). They ate it up.
Chix in Space, officially called the Chicken Embryo Development in Space experiment, initially consisted of twelve fertilized chicken eggs nested in an incubator. Normally on Earth eggs need to be turned periodically by a hen because gravity pulls the yolk to the bottom of the shell. This led Vellinger to wonder whether a zero gravity environment would change the way embryos needed to be cared for. KFC provided one of their engineers, Mark Deuser, to help Vellinger construct the incubator. The experiment consisted of twelve White Leghorn chicken eggs fertilized immediately before launch. Eight would be exposed to microgravity and radiation while in orbit with the remaining four were housed in lead shielding to minimize radiation exposure. Vellinger would attend to a dozen control eggs back on Earth. Chix in Space launched on Challenger STS-51-L on January 28, 1986. Payload specialist and soon-to-be first teacher in space Christa McAuliffe was in charge of the experiment. At T+73 seconds after liftoff, however, Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart and the lives of all seven crew members and twelve embryos were lost.
Vellinger with his Chix in Space incubator (KFC)
Fortunately for Vellinger, NASA and KFC were still interested in his experiment and allowed him and his team to reconstruct the one that was lost. Thirty-two fertilized eggs were flown into space three years later on Discovery STS-29. Half the embryos were fertilized nine days before launch while the other half were fertilized only two days before launch. This was so they could be studied at different stages of development. The mission launched on March 13, 1989 and orbited the Earth for five days. A week after return, the first chick hatched. He was named Kentucky and lived out the rest of his days at the Louisville Zoo in Louisville, Kentucky. He was one of eight space chicks who had survived the trip. According to Vellinger, all eight were from the batch that fertilized nine days before launch.
STS-29 pilot and Purdue graduate John Blaha operating the experiment in orbit (NASA)
Today, the Chix in Space incubator is on display at the Cosmosphere Museum in Hutchinson, Kansas. Vellinger and Deuser cofounded the Louisville-based company Techshot, Inc., a company that develops payloads for space-based research. Their devices flew on later Shuttle missions as well as SpaceX Dragon spacecraft. One in particular that is similar to Chix in Space is NASA's Rodent Research hardware, which studies mice on board the International Space Station. No birds have flown in space since, but Chix in Space paved the way for future experiments on how microgravity and radiation effect the miracle of life.
Author's Note: Please take time today, no matter which day it is, to honor the memories of those who gave their lives for the exploration of space. May humankind continue the exploration of space in their honor.
"The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave." -Ronald Reagan
Pearlman, Robert. “When KFC *Actually* Went to Space: Before Zinger 1, There Was 'Chix in Space': CollectSPACE.” CollectSPACE.com, 29 June 2017, www.collectspace.com/news/news-062917a-kfc-zinger-chix-space-mission.html.
Pike, Jared. “John Vellinger: From Chix in Space to a Company in Space.” Purdue University, www.purdue.edu/space/features/chix-09-2018.php.
Valentine, Katie. “The Amazing Story of the Cold War Space-Egg Race.” Audubon, 15 Dec. 2017, www.audubon.org/news/the-amazing-story-cold-war-space-egg-race.