GREENBELT -- It may be the only long-distance phone call they'll ever make to someone in orbit.
And 28 students from Howard and Prince George's counties made the most of it yesterday, listening to a science lesson taught from space by the crew of the shuttle Columbia and asking them questions from a crowded control room at NASA's
Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.
"It's definitely better than being in the classroom with a teacher," said Sara Tiner, a 14-year-old freshman at Hammond High School. "It makes you really want to be up in space. When you look at them, they seem to be having so much fun."
The area students -- plus 15 more at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. -- were participating in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's first "Space Classroom," the legacy of a lesson that was to be taught in 1986 by teacher-in-space Christa McAuliffe during the ill-fated Challenger
The 13 Howard County students were eighth-graders at Hammond Middle School when they won the opportunity to participate by writing winning essays about space. After seven months of launch delays, they finally arrived for the adventure as high school freshmen.
"How many chances do you get to do something like this?" said Eugene Hudson, their middle school science teacher. "I'd love to be up there. I'd probably go even if I knew there was going to be trouble."
It was a welcome break for the four astronomers aboard the shuttle -- including Sam Durrance of the Johns Hopkins University and Ron Parise of Computer Sciences Corp. in Silver Spring -- after five days of encountering pointing problems with the Astro-1 observatory.
"You may have heard some of the problems we've been having. It's been quite an interesting and dynamic mission," said Jeffrey Hoffman, an astronomer and veteran astronaut responsible for helping to direct the three ultraviolet telescopes mounted in Columbia's open cargo bay.
Dr. Hoffman floated into view wearing a dress shirt and necktie with a mind of its own. "All the [male] science teachers I had wore ties. Since no one's ever worn a tie in space, I thought I'd give it a try," he said. "You have to be a little careful in zero gravity, as you can see."
The science lesson came first, an explanation of the electromagnetic spectrum tailored to the Astro mission, a 10-day flight using the 200-mile-high perch to observe celestial objects in the invisible-from-Earth ultraviolet and X-ray regions of the spectrum.
The spectrum ranges from that high-energy, short wavelength radiation to low-energy, long wavelength radiation, such as radio waves and infrared light. Visible starlight that we see is only a tiny portion of the total spectrum of radiation coming from space, most of which is screened out by Earth's atmosphere.
Dr. Durrance demonstrated by playing a tape of the "Star Wars" theme with all high and low notes missing, an eerie, unrecognizable tune. "The universe is playing a kind of symphony in the light it produces. Up here, our telescopes can hear all the notes," he said.
Looking fit and happy in his shuttle home, Dr. Durrance told the students the mission was "a fulfillment of a dream. When we landed on the moon, it changed my life. I wanted to be part of it, I wanted to share the adventure of space flight."
The students -- including 15 eighth-graders from teacher Scott Hangey's classes at Gwynn Park Middle School in Brandywine -- got their chance to make history just after noon, when the live question-and-answer session began with Dr. Parise and astronomer Robert Parker.
They stuck to the script, asking good astronomy questions about the spectrum, black holes, active galaxies and supernovae, although there was loads of more important stuff they wanted to know, like how the astronauts go to the bathroom up there and how they eat in zero gravity.
Paul Menard, Staci Bartro and Mura Hussain, all 14, asked the Howard County questions. From Prince George's, the lucky students were Adrienne Tracy, Cora Toadvine and James Walls, all 13.
And they listened most closely when the two astronauts rhapsodized about the joys of space. "Looking out at the Earth," Dr. Parise said, "is awesome, really an incredible view, really a beautiful sight." Dr. Parker agreed: "It's fun to look out and watch the world go by below."
After it was over, the students sat at the computer terminals and listened a little bit longer to the communications between Columbia and mission control and tried to memorize what it looked like so they could tell other students as traveling ambassadors in the coming months.
"I've been waiting for a long time, and then, in a moment, it's over," said Paul Menard, a Laurel resident who has plans to be an astronomer and already has a 5-inch telescope at home.
Yes, he was nervous asking his question. And yes, the experience was well worth it. "I'll probably get it on my resume," he said.