As assembly of the International Space Station continues in Earth orbit, scientists the world over are vying to take part in research conducted aboard the most ambitious space research facility in human history.
But as far as a nationwide network of space-savvy students is concerned, the eggheads can just get in line.
Science and math students at 26 middle and high schools in 17 states are taking part in a unique pilot program developed by researchers at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., to test communications between Earth and the Space Station. The students are talking live with NASA astronauts over the Internet, interacting with their peers around the nation -- and anticipating the day they can take part in science experiments conducted 250 miles in space.
The students' project is the brainchild of Marshall Center engineer Bob Bradford, who oversees voice and video communications between the Station, science teams throughout North America and NASA's primary Space Station science command post on Earth -- the Payload Operations Center at Marshall.
The complex communications network relies on the Telescience Resource Kit, or TReK, a computer system developed at the Marshall Center. TReK enables scientists working in their own laboratories on Earth to receive information from, and transmit commands to, their experiments aboard the Space Station.
TReK also allows observers anywhere in the world to watch or take part in those experiments via dedicated Windows NT workstations. The systems will display multiple on-screen windows, streaming video, scientific data and text commands to and from the Space Station. They also will employ special "Voice Over the Internet" software developed by AZ Technology, Inc., of Huntsville and White Pine Software of Nashua, N.H.
The driving force behind the classroom initiative, Bradford says, was really the two dozen middle and high school teachers who visited Marshall for a two-week summer workshop in 1999, where they toured the Payload Operations Center and witnessed a TReK demonstration.
When Bradford mentioned he was seeking test sites to improve the Station-to-Earth communications system, the reaction was instantaneous. "We all got real excited and shouted, 'We'll do it, we'll do it!'" says Adele Quintana, who teaches chemistry and biology at participating Dumas High School in Dumas, Texas. "We saw a good thing and we went after it. We were relentless."
And her students thank her for it. "The program has brought a lot of enthusiasm back to our science classes," Quintana says. "Enthusiasm for current events, as well. The students are asking questions about issues related to science and the space program. They're directly involved, and they love that."
"We don't get a lot of opportunities like this," adds Ed Roberts, who teaches physics and physical science at Pottsville High School in Pottsville, Ark. -- a rural community where high school enrollment is fewer than 300 students. "It's a chance for our kids to take part in a very exclusive program. A chance for them to shine."
Because on-orbit Space Station experiments are still a year away, Bradford decided to combine his system tests with a treat for participating classrooms: live question-and-answer interviews with notable NASA astronauts and scientists.
The chat series has brought participating TReK classes together via live Internet voice feeds with Space Shuttle astronauts Jan Davis and Fred Leslie and Marshall Center biologist Craig Kundrot. The schools are already clamoring for additional chats.
For one unique class, the chats may even inspire new interest in staying in school and staying out of trouble. Deb Herrick's students at the Ottawa County Juvenile Detention Center in West Olive, Mich., are often troubled, alienated 5th to 11th graders. Some show up in her class for just a few days; others stay as part of six-month treatment programs. There is often an initial resistance to the classroom setting, Herrick says. But they warm up fast when they realize they're making history.
"They recognize that they are helping to initiate communications aboard the International Space Station," Herrick says. "They see it as something special. Every one of them takes that experience away with them."
The chat sessions benefit NASA as well as the students, Bradford says. They help fine-tune the transmission network, resolving technical glitches to ensure flawless communications between Earthbound TReK users and astronauts working in a lab that crosses the night sky above them like a shooting star.
But the kids in the TReK program pay no mind to technical glitches, nor to the vast gulf between themselves and the Space Station experiments they'll one day monitor from their classrooms. Thanks to TReK, they're no longer truly Earthbound.
For them, the future of science is right here, right now. And it's go for launch.
· Rainbow Middle School, Gadsden, Ala.
· Guntersville High School, Guntersville, Ala.
· Central High School, Phenix City, Ala.
· Altheimer-Sherrill High School, Altheimer, Ark.
· Pottsville High School, Pottsville, Ark.
· LaJunta Middle School, LaJunta, Colo.
· Hobart Middle School, Hobart, Ind.
· Missouri Valley High School, Missouri Valley, Iowa
· Sherwood Middle School, Baton Rouge, La.
· Mackinaw Trail Middle School, Cadillac, Mich.
· Kelloggsville Middle School, Grand Rapids, Mich.
· Ottawa County Juvenile Detention Center, West Olive, Mich.
· Lewis & Clark Middle School, Jefferson City, Mo.
· Lexington High School, Lexington, Neb.
· C.W. Stanford Middle School, Hillsborough, N.C.
· South Iredell High School, Statesville, N.C.
· Seven Hills School, Cincinnati, Ohio
· Upper Sandusky High School, Upper Sandusky, Ohio
· Redbank Valley High School, New Bethlehem, Pa.
· Ruffin High School, Ruffin, S.C.
· Dumas High School, Dumas, Texas
· Klein Oak High School, Spring, Texas
· Providence Middle School, Richmond, Va.
· National Cathedral School, Washington D.C.
· Appleton North High School, Appleton, Wis.
· Fox River Middle School, Waterford, Wis.
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Materials provided by NASA Marshall Space Flight Center. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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