Paul Menard was so nervous he almost hoped the long-delayed space shuttle Columbia would suffer a few more delays.
The 14-year-old Hammond High School freshman was feeling the effects of a major responsibility. He would be asking the first question in an exchange between students from Howard and Prince George's counties and astronauts on board Columbia.
But when the moment came, at about 12:15 p.m. Friday, and Hammond Middle School science teacher Eugene E. Hudson began his introduction, "This is Greenbelt . . ." Paul was ready.
"How do you define an active galaxy?" he asked astronauts Robert A.R.
Parker and Ronald A. Parise loud and clear.
Paul's question was part of NASA's first science lesson from space, a project that brought Alabama middle school students together in a classroom at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, and students from Howard and Prince George's counties to Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.
Paul and 14 other students, now ninth-graders at Atholton and Hammond high schools, were chosen for the lesson on the basis of essays they wrote last year in the science classes taught by Hudson and Mark McCullin at Hammond Middle School.
The Hammond Middle School students got the opportunity to participate because Hudson worked at the space agency from 1987 to 1989 under a Goddard program that offers teachers a chance to work on space-related projects.
One of Hudson's projects was helping to plan the science lesson taught by the astronauts.
Two students missed the lesson, one because his family moved to Texas during the six months of delay that plagued Columbia and one because she missed the bus Friday morning.
Even after the lesson was over and the interior of the space shuttle's middle deck had faded from the television screens in the room at Goddard, Paul said the experience hadn't yet really hit him.
"It's just so overwhelming," he said, to realize that you're communicating with someone who is orbiting the earth.
McCullin said the students appeared to maintain their enthusiasm despite the record five delays. Columbia, originally scheduled for launch in May, was postponed because of fuel leaks, mechanical problems and then had its launch date pushed back to last Sunday to follow the Discovery shuttle.
Shortly after the Columbia got into orbit, scientists discovered that the four telescopes on board, designed to capture light that is absorbed by earth's atmosphere and lost to ground viewers, failed to work. It took two days for the astronauts to get the telescopes' automatic focuses to work.
Enthusiasm despite the glitches was personified by Stacey Sellman, 13, a prospective astrophysicist who is now a freshman at Hammond High School.
"I like fame," Stacey said happily, moving from newspaper to television interviews Friday morning.
Stacey wants to attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to major in physics and minor in astronomy. "I've loved astronomy ever since I was little," she said, citing a love for math and science that goes back to the seventh grade.
"It's hard for females to be scientists," she acknowledged, but doesn't intend to let barriers stop her. In fact, she would like to take a space flight and looks forward to the day when colonies in space will be common.
Staci Bartro, 14, now a freshman at Atholton High School, was enthusiastic last spring about being part of the historic space lesson.
"It might help in my future career," she said then. She added that the rehearsals at Goddard provided good lessons in "how you have to wait with communications."
The students learned again about delays in communications Friday, when the question-and-answer session had to be postponed until the Columbia changed position in orbit, bringing the shuttle's antenna around to the side closest to earth.
Staci admitted her enthusiasm flagged during the delays last summer. "It was like, if this just drags on, I don't know if I want to be part of this." But she said she got excited about it again when she received a letter from NASA two weeks ago saying the launch was back on schedule.
Asked what she will remember about the lesson when she is 30, Staci replied, "That I was able to talk to an astronaut."
She was the second Howard Countian to ask one of the questions from a list drawn up by the Hammond students after they finished an eighth-grade unit on light waves.
Her question: Will we be able to determine the density and makeup of a black hole or even discover that it could possibly be a "window" to another galaxy or quasar?
The questions and the astronauts' answers were prepared in advance.
"They basically script out everything," McCullin said. "People don't realize that. They think it's kind of a free-wheeling thing, but they (NASA) like to leave as little as possible to chance."