Students from middle and high schools across America have prepared biological samples for an experiment that this week astronauts will place aboard the International Space Station when the Space Shuttle Atlantis returns to that unique, orbiting laboratory.
Working side-by-side with university and NASA scientists, the students mixed and loaded about 200 of the 500 biological samples in small plastic tubes that were then frozen and placed in an experiment container. The crew will transfer the experiment from the Shuttle to the Space Station during the STS-98 mission set for launch this Wednesday, Feb. 7.
The flight samples were prepared by 222 students and teachers from 89 schools in six states: Alabama, California, Florida, Michigan, Tennessee and Texas. Since the program began in 1999, students and teachers from 450 schools in states across the country have attended workshops where they grew crystals and learned about biological substances that carry out many important functions for humans, animals and plants. This hands-on education program is sponsored by the Biotechnology Program at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. — NASA's lead center for flying payloads that take advantage of the low-gravity environment created as the Space Station orbits Earth.
"This opportunity opens the students' eyes to so much of the world beyond," said LaVonda Popp, who teaches chemistry, physics and biology at Gatesville, Texas, High School, one of schools participating in the program. "Many of the students didn't know much about space, and this educational opportunity exposes them to careers and different areas of science conducted in space."
The students and teachers mixed biological solutions and sealed the chemicals in small tubes or pipettes. The samples were frozen to —321 degrees Fahrenheit (-196 degrees Celsius or 77.3 degrees Kelvin).
Just before the Shuttle launch, scientists placed the samples in the Enhanced Gaseous Nitrogen Dewar — a vacuum-jacketed container, similar to a large thermos bottle, with an absorbent inner liner saturated with liquid nitrogen. Once in orbit, the liquid nitrogen will boil off inside the unpowered, unattended thermal enclosure, and the samples will begin to thaw.
Before thawing is complete, the crew will move the dewar to the Space Station where crystals will slowly form for several weeks. When the Shuttle returns to the Station in March, the dewar will be brought back to Earth where scientists will retrieve and analyze the crystals to determine the structure of biological molecules.
"It's really thrilling that even students can be part of one of the first experiments on the International Space Station," said Bobby Hill, a Gatesville freshman.
Some of the crystals will be returned to the students so that they can compare them to crystals grown in their classrooms and at the NASA workshops. The students can view photos of the crystals grown during NASA workshops on a special Web site designed by Dr. Anna Holmes, a NASA scientist who helps conduct the workshops.
The students can also monitor results as Dr. Alex McPherson -- a biochemist at the University of California at Irvine and the lead scientist for the experiment -- analyzes other crystals grown aboard the same flight. Often, higher quality crystals can be grown in the low-gravity environment created as the Space Station circles Earth.
"There are many ways to grow crystals," said McPherson. "The dewar allows us to fly hundreds of samples at once, so we can look at a variety of conditions and determine which ones produce the best crystals." McPherson has been a leader of NASA-sponsored crystallization projects since 1984 and received NASA's Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal in 1999. He has published numerous journal articles describing crystals grown on the Space Shuttle and the Russian space station Mir.
His experiment sets the stage for more complex structural biology experiments to be flown in the U.S. Laboratory Destiny, which is being attached to the Space Station during this mission. The Boeing Corp. built Destiny at the Marshall Center in the same building where engineers assembled the Saturn V rockets that carried people to the Moon.
"The Space Station is a unique space laboratory where we will be able to perform experiments for longer periods than ever before, in sophisticated facilities and under conditions that are more controlled," said Ron Porter, manager of the Biotechnology Program at the Marshall Center. "We are pleased that students -- the scientists and engineers of the future -- were able to have a hands-on role in one of the first biotechnology experiments on the Space Station."
This pilot education program has been supported by the NASA Headquarters Education Office, the Marshall Center Biotechnology Program, NASA's Kennedy Space Center, the University of California at Irvine, the University of Alabama in Huntsville, Alabama A&M University in Huntsville, the Alabama Space Grant Consortium, the Florida Space Grant Consortium, the Texas Space Grant Consortium, the Bell South Pioneers, Alabama Science in Motion, Sci-Quest, Bionetics Corp., the U.S. Air Force Civil Air Patrol, Raytheon Corp., Lockheed Martin Corp., United Space Alliance, Spaceport Florida Authority, Florida Space Research Institute, Area Center for Educational Enhancement in Florida and SAP America.
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