From Tribune-Review of Western Pennsylvania

Pieces of Upper St. Clair to hit space
Students' projects to blast off with Glenn, Shuttle

By Cynthia Bent

STAFF WRITER

Only days before deadline and a group of students are frantically brainstorming. They quickly need a compelling project that's not only interesting, but compact enough to fit into test tubes.

And, it must survive an entire mission - in space.

"We thought of sending Silly Putty," said Megen Vo, an eighth-grader at Fort Couch Middle School in Upper St. Clair.

"Ink, film, things like that, to see if radioactivity affected them," said classmate Lloyd Becker.

"And in a burst of ingenuity, we thought ... sea monkeys," added Vo.

In all, 11 test tubes filled with millions of sea monkey eggs and Chia Pet seeds will ride alongside several other amateur experiments during U.S. Sen. John Glenn's historic shuttle flight.

With blastoff scheduled for 2 p.m. Thursday, a little piece of Upper St. Clair will be sitting just a few feet below Glenn in the shuttle's cargo bay, about to orbit the Earth.

The students' homemade experiment - testing the effects of space on the eggs and seeds - were carefully packaged and sent to NASA in Texas in early August. The schools' test tubes are among several other school experiments from across the country ready to launch into orbit.

Also tucked away in the small pressurized canister containing the test tubes is the students' project logo, signed by each of the 23 students who participated.

"So when we get the capsule back, we'll pull out the paper and they each get the piece with their own signature that's been flying in space with John Glenn," said Pat Palazzolo, the teacher running the school project.

Accompanied by four teachers, four of the students are flying to Florida today to view the historic launch.

When the shrimp eggs and alfalfa seeds come back, students throughout the school system will hatch, grow and study the results.

Younger students will test the hatch rate and chart their growth, Palazzolo said. Seniors will perform DNA tests, to see how the mini-astronauts compare with their earth-bound brothers.

This space "discovery" mission comes only natural to Palazzolo.

Palazzolo qualified as a finalist in the 1985 Teachers in Space competition won by Christa McAuliffe, who died on the Challenger explosion in 1986.

As a result, she's tried to maintain connections with NASA education programs ever since, and this Thursday's launch will be the sixth she's personally witnessed.

Palazzolo heard about the opportunity to design a NASA project through a chain of contacts that stretches back to the late 1980s and a former middle school student of hers, Amy Snyder, now in graduate school at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

When Brian Roberts, a friend of Snyder's whom she met through a NASA internship, e-mailed her that he was looking for a school project to piggyback on his own for the shuttle mission, she immediately contacted her former teacher Palazzolo.

NASA officials told Roberts his experiment - testing the moving parts of his "superwrench" - would surely earn a spot on the shuttle if it tied in with a school project. As it turned out, connecting with Palazzolo proved a perfect combination.

"I'm hoping to hook up with them down in Florida, we're driving down (today) and I'm really looking forward to that," said Roberts, an aerospace engineering graduate student at the University of Maryland.

Palazzolo's hoping the launch this time will be an intense experience for the students, even from their vantage six miles away.

"The shuttle won't look big at first. As it starts to lift off and get higher, it's brighter than sun," Palazzolo said. "And they'll hear it quite loudly, it's more like the sound of rapid burning fire, a windy flame sort of sound, and extreme brightness."

The students said they're all aware that this launch, like all shuttle launches, might not go off as scheduled, especially if fierce Hurricane Mitch sends a breeze or two north to Cape Canaveral. They said that doesn't matter.

"Just being there and thinking maybe it's going to launch, that'll be great enough, just the excitement of that," said eighth-grader Heather Ralph-Marcucci.