Boston — Not to be outdone by Skylab's famous spider duo, Arabella and Anita, the Columbia space shuttle is carrying its own menagerie of insects.
Like Arabella and Anita, these insects are not along just for the ride or to keep crew members Jack Lousma and Gordon Fullerton company.
The bugs are the subjects of an experiment developed by senior high school student Todd Nelson of Rose Creek, Minn. He wants to observe the flight behavior of the velvetbean caterpillar moth and the honeybee drone in zero gravity.
Because gravity is a primary element for orientation and stable free flight of insects, Todd says he hopes his experiment will discover if flying insects can adapt to zero gravity.
Ten insects of each species and in different stages of development have been stored in separate canisters in a shuttle locker. On the fourth day of the seven-day trip, the crew will attach the canisters to the mid-deck wall where the insects will be observed and filmed. Todd will analyze the data when the shuttle returns to Earth.
While Todd Nelson is the first student to have an experiment fly on the space shuttle, he is not the first to have a research project on a space flight.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) have jointly conducted the Student Involvement Project (SIP), which has promoted student experiments suitable for testing in space since 1961.
Although there is no evidence to show if SIP is fulfilling its purpose of stimulating more students to take up the study of science and engineering, Alan Ladwig, NASA's education specialist, says he believes there are indications of a growing interest.
Mr. Ladwig says that the increase in the number of requests for entry packets (86,500 for 1981-82) and the doubling of proposals submitted (2,800) is proof of more involvement.
He says he is also encouraged by the increased number of winners and that 40 percent of the winners this year are women.
Robert Staeley, a SIP winner with an experiment on Skylab, says he does not think the project encourages neophytes to study of science.
''I knew I was going to be doing something in science,'' says Mr. Staeley, now working for NASA's Jet Propulsion Labratory in Pasadena, Calif. ''I think it would be difficult for a student not already very interested in science to write a winning proposal. However, what SIP did do is get me five years ahead of where I would have been without it. I have quite a lot more experience in aerospace physics than most people my age.''
With a reduction in the government's financial commitment to the space program, NASA has taken steps to ensure the longevity of the SIP. Eager to capitalize on President Reagan's directive to encourage volunteerism and participation by private industry, NASA matches each winning student proposal with a corporate sponsor.
The corporation, such as Todd Nelson's sponsor, Honeywell Avionics Division, assigns scientists and engineers to help take the basic concept from its preliminary stage of development to final integration into the space vehicle. The sponsor also pays for hardware development, travel expenses, and post-flight analysis and reporting.
Honeywell has assigned two engineers, Dr. Robert Peterson and Gerald Adams, to assist Todd. However, Todd's experiment has changed very little from its original proposal and the engineers are impressed with his sincere interest.
''Todd is not just a dilettante playing around with this thing,'' remarks Dr. Peterson. ''He is very interested and knowledgeable.''
''The fact that the experiment has changed very little from his original concept to the hardware that we now have tells us that Todd had a valid scientific experiment from the outset,'' says Robert Moulton, manager of Honeywell's Aerospace and Defense Group.
NASA also has developed a core of more than 700 teacher advisers, scientists, and engineer volunteers who have cut expenses once absorbed by NASA while developing student experiments such as Judith Miles web-spinning duo on Skylab in 1973