Last flight of shuttle Endeavour to carry Shelton students' science experiment
SHELTON -- Local high school science students will be among those watching the historic final launch of the Space Shuttle Endeavour at the Kennedy Space Center on Friday, the second-to-last mission of the 30-year space shuttle program, which will conclude in June. The students will have precious cargo aboard Endeavour's payload: a science experiment and artwork.
Five Shelton High School seniors teamed up last fall to design and propose an experiment for the shuttle flight as part of the inaugural Student Spaceflight Experiment Program, which began last June by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education. A sixth student, junior Jessica Olavarria, 16, created a logo representing the town of Shelton, which will also travel into space.
"How many people can say their drawing went up to space?" Olavarria said.
A contingent of about three dozen people including students, parents and school personnel from Shelton will make the trip to Cape Canaveral, hoping that the Endeavour lifts off as scheduled at 3:47 p.m.
Endeavour's flight has been the subject of much attention outside of the high school.
"This is the final flight of the Endeavour. This is the end of an era," said Jeff Goldstein, director of the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education, based in Maryland.
It is also significant because astronaut Mark Kelly, husband of Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords who was shot in January, is the Endeavour's commander. Giffords is expected to attend the launch.
Endeavour's original flight was set for February. It was postponed because the April 19 date conflicted with Russia's plans to send an unmanned cargo ship to the International Space Station.
"I don't know if we're allowed to be excited anymore considering all the delays we've had," said Jason Shnipes, 18.
The students' experiment, called Development of Prokaryotic Cell Walls in Microgravity, will grow a particular strain of bacteria during the shuttle's 14-day mission. The young Shelton scientists' work will not conclude with liftoff. Their research will continue after the shuttle and the experiment returns to earth, said James Szabo, 18. Omar Sobh, 17, said their experiment is confined in two small wells totaling 250 microliters containing their growth medium, called Luria broth, and their bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis.
"We were thinking that if we send the bacteria up in space and we grow it in a microgravity environment (we'll) see if the cell walls will be weaker or stronger, and if they're weaker, we're thinking they will be less resistant to antibiotics. We're going to treat (the bacteria) with Ampicillin when it gets back," said Leann Misencik, 17.
When it returns, they will compare the bacteria grown in space with bacteria grown on Earth, said Sobh. He said the experiment could have a medical application and may lead to treatments for drug-resistant bacterial infections. Sobh said astronauts have increased susceptibility to infections in space.
"They tend to get very sick in space," he said.
The hope is that the antibiotic stops the growth of the bacteria that was produced in space. The students are already hypothesizing that the cell walls of the bacteria will be weaker because human's cells seem to be compromised in space. Astronauts return with temporarily weakened muscles and immune systems.
"Even if our results are inconclusive, at least it's something for someone else to build on," Misencik said.
School officials said the students are learning what it is like to be a real researcher.
"They got a true, real world experience on what it means to be an aerospace engineer and a scientist overall. Their experiment proposal had to show a purpose and they had to meet the criteria that a real NASA scientist or researcher would have to complete in order to conduct an experiment in space," said Tina Henckel, assistant director of STEM and Data Management, who also directs the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program for the Shelton school system.
Their project had to be accepted by a NASA review board and pass a flight safety test, but there was also a fee of $15,000 per experiment to be included in the payload, which was covered in part by Perkin Elmer.
When the Shelton students' experiment was selected last November to fly, they were the only students from New England participating in the Endeavour's flight, which at that time was scheduled to be the final flight of a space shuttle. Congress later authorized funding for one more mission, and now a science project from a school in Hartford has been selected for the final space shuttle flight of the Atlantis, Goldstein said.
Still, the students are not disappointed.
"Either way, it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. How many people do you know that get to say they had their science project on the space shuttle?" Misencik said.
Mary Clark, the science curriculum leader at Shelton High School and teacher facilitator for the team of young scientists, said she's excited to go to Florida to see the launch.
"It's a historic event, no matter what,'' she said. "I'm taking my own kids out of school to go. They'll never see another one."
Principal Beth Smith agrees: "They are leaders in the school and in the community and set an example for their peers."