This is a glorious time for Paul Menard. The other night, he looked through his telescope and gazed into outer space at the planet Mars. Today, he got a chance to speak with astronauts in outer space aboard the space shuttle Columbia.
Shortly after noon today, Menard, from Hammond High School, and four other Howard County students spoke with the shuttle crew members Samuel T. Durrance, an astronomer from John Hopkins University, and Ronald A. Parise by radio from the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt as part of NASA's "Space Classroom" program.
Staci Bartro and Muna Hussain, from Atholton High School, and Deanna Giddings, from Hammond High, asked the crew members about black holes, the electromagnetic spectrum and for the definition of an active galaxy.
In all, 15 Howard County public school students -- all former Hammond Middle schoolers -- journeyed to Goddard today. Astronauts in the Astro-1 mission taught the students.
At the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., 12 students from four southeastern states also took part in the "Space Classroom" program. It is the first in what NASA hopes will become a science series designed to promote interest in the space agency's missions among young people.
All six of the Hammond High students were excited about the mission -- from Paul, who has studied astronomy since the fourth grade, to Chris Parker, who only recently has become interested in space, to Elizabeth Davis, "a confirmed humanities person." -- Students from a Prince George's County's Gwynn Park Middle School also are participating.
The Howard teen-agers became involved in the program last year when they were eighth-graders at Hammond Middle School. A science teacher there, Eugene Hudson, had participated in Goddard's professional educator program and was selected to help plan today's science lesson.
Hudson and fellow Hammond Middle science teacher Mark McCullin selected the 15 students who submitted the best essays on what they would want to gain from the mission.
After the selection process, they went to Goddard in April for a simulation of the mission and to observe a telecommunication link with the Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston, the Marshall Space Flight Center and Cape Canaveral, Fla.'s Kennedy Space Center, the launching site.
Then they waited for May, when the Columbia was scheduled to lift off. First came one delay. Then another. And two more for the mission, which originally was set to happen in 1986.
"I thought I'd be old and gray before this happened," said Stacey Sellman, 13, who plans to become an astrophysicist.
But, when the launch date was set for last Sunday, some of the students were so convinced the liftoff would really happen that they journeyed to Goddard to view it on monitors there.
"It got delayed at T minus 9 minutes and we were holding our breath," said Sara Tiner, 14, whose patience was rewarded with a successful liftoff.
Sara predicted today's space lesson would be just as thrilling for the engineers and scientists at Goddard as for the students.
"It's an interesting experience for them and us," she said. "They've never had kids in the control room before."
Other students who participated were: Beth Dent, Kelly Leishear, Adam Marton, Brian Posey, Will Robinson, Andre Smith and Jessica Winter.