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.