One hundred days in outer space wasn't enough to kill "Neffi" the spider, but a simple trip to Washington, D.C., proved enough to do the trick.
The Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History and the University of Colorado confirmed the death on Monday of "Nefertiti," the spider at the center of an experiment conceived by an Egyptian student and launched by Boulder researchers.
A 42-million-mile jaunt through space and subsequent splashdown in the Pacific Ocean seemingly didn't faze the Johnson jumping spider (species Phidippus johnsoni). But after being put on exhibit at the Smithsonian's Insect Zoo on Thursday, it was dead by Monday.
Neffi, of a species that typically enjoys a lifespan of about one year, was 10 months old. Monday's passing of the so-called "spidernaut," according to the Smithsonian, was due to natural causes. However, the Smithsonian conceded that no necropsy was performed on the deceased arachnid.
"There was not," admitted Smithsonian press officer Kelly Carnes, who described museum staff as "pretty devastated."
Carnes added, "I think the reasoning is that we want to add her to our collection so that we can continue to learn about spiders. And she is much more useful as a research specimen if we keep her intact.
"The mission lives on."
Also counted among the mourners is Stefanie Countryman, the projects manager for K-12 Educational Projects at CU's BioServe Space Technologies. But Countryman was philosophical.
"That's how it is, with living organisms. You just never know," Countryman said. "Someone didn't squish her. It wasn't something someone did. She had been eating well at the Smithsonian, and active. There is no other explanation, other than that she was reaching the end of her lifespan."
'Bonus she came back alive'
The spider's life was short. But it was memorable.
As Countyrman put it, "She traveled from Arizona to Colorado and then to Japan, then into a rocket to the space station, where she was basically starved after about 55 days, then comes back in a SpaceX Dragon capsule into the Pacific, then to Long Beach (California), back to Colorado and then to the Smithsonian. You never know how all that impacted her."
Countryman added, "It's a bonus she came back alive, honestly."
The experiment that made Neffi famous was conceived as part of the NASA-sponsored YouTube Space Lab contest in which two student-proposed studies were selected from thousands submitted worldwide by video. Amr Mohamed, 18, of Egypt, suggested examining whether a spider normally dependent on gravity for catching its meals would be able to adapt, and eat, in a micro-gravity environment.
Specific procedures for the winning experiments then were designed in CU's aerospace engineering sciences department. Countryman said the Neffi experiment demonstrated that, in fact, the spider was able to hunt down fruit flies in her sealed space environment on the International Space Station just fine -- until her food supply ran out.
"You can blame that on me," Countryman said.
She explained that a month-long supply of fruit flies actually lasted 55 days. However, there was adequate water -- the critical element in bare-necessities survival for a spider -- for the remaining 45 days of its time on the space station. Also, Neffi was sent into space "gorged" on a full stomach, Countryman added.
Neffi circled the earth more than 1,500 times, then splashed back down off the Southern California coast Oct. 28. She was recovered by Countryman at Long Beach, Calif., on Oct. 30. The spider was returned to Boulder and nursed back to health for about a month before being transported to the Smithsonian.
After the whirlwind of recent months, just a few days in Foggy Bottom were apparently the last straw.
"I'm going with, she was eating well, she was fat and happy and said, 'You know what? I've been around the world, I've been to space and back. What more is there? I might as well give up the ghost now, before they make me do something else,'" Countryman said.
A Smithsonian announcement of Neffi's passing noted, "The loss of this special animal that inspired so many imaginations will be felt throughout the museum community."
Contact Camera Staff Writer Charlie Brennan at 303-473-1327 or firstname.lastname@example.org.