Plans to send insects to the stratosphere are sending animal rights activists into orbit.

Amateur rocketeers plan to transform bees and grasshoppers into Bug Rogerses and launch them in model rockets next year in recognition of the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' arrival in the New World.But the proposed bug blastoffs would be cruel and scientifically trivial, say some groups, including the national Humane Society.

The creatures would be launched up to six miles high as a small part of International Space Year, a plethora of educational programs and projects in 1992 tied to the Columbus celebration.

International Space Year is billed as "the first yearlong, worldwide celebration of humanity's future in the space age." Congress has passed legislation recognizing it, and NASA and President Bush have publicly supported it.

Each rocket could contain a video camera that would transmit live pictures of the insects' behavior during flight, said George S. James, who is organizing the rocket-fest for the Washington-based U.S. International Space Year Association.

The creatures and scientific instruments would be parachuted back to Earth.

But the proposed project is "lousy science," said Randall Lockwood, a vice president of the national Humane Society who is a model-rocket buff not connected with the project. "It's a `gee-whiz' view of science which says, `Let's stick this in here and see what happens.' That's not how we should be teaching science."

The planned launches are "not only unscientific and just plain silly, but cruel, and something that definitely sends the wrong message to children. Most parents tell their children not to pull the wings off flies, so why would they encourage them to rocket-launch other insects?" asked Siriol Evans, representative for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which claims 350,000 members and is based in Rockville, Md.

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service