Space capsule is down to Earth

Schoolchildren examine science experiments that orbited the planet

October 17, 2001|By Stephen Kiehl | By Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

The man from NASA held the half-moon-shaped, black aluminum space capsule in his yellow plastic gloves and said to the young children: "This hasn't seen daylight since May. It's seen lots of radiation, hot and cold, microbes, all sorts of stuff."

Now, he asked, who wants to open it?

Thirty hands shot into the air. Sixty eyes trained on the capsule and waited for the unveiling. Inside were experiments from five Anne Arundel County elementary schools. The capsule, packed in May, was shot into space in August aboard the shuttle Discovery.

After orbiting the earth 186 times and traveling 5 million miles, the shuttle and the capsule returned to Cape Canaveral, Fla., and the capsule made its way back to Anne Arundel County. Yesterday, the children opened it and learned how their experiments fared.

They had sent up vials filled with pens, cooking oil, ground-up Alka-Seltzer, grass seeds and Play-Doh. Film, rubber bands and an assortment of balls were included. They all will be studied carefully, weighed, measured, and compared with control sets at school. But yesterday, the pupils offered preliminary observations.

"Is there anything about your Play-Doh that's different than before?" science resource teacher Heather Thompson asked A.J. Francis, a sixth-grader at Old Mill Middle School South.

"It stinks," he answered.

Other experiments were a bit worse for wear.

The cooking oil had turned from yellow to white. The Alka-Seltzer had turned thick and clumpy. The pen had exploded.

"We want to provoke their interest in science, math and engineering," said Chuck Brodell, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's student project manager. "It's a great way to get students excited about science, and a great motivational tool."

One of the experiments, "Braces in Space" from Fort Smallwood Elementary School in Pasadena, intended to measure the effect of zero gravity on the rubber bands that snap onto braces - of vital interest to children with not-so-straight teeth who have aspirations for space travel.

Tiny rubber bands were stretched across nails on a wooden board and packed into the capsule.

Yesterday, the bands appeared looser and darker in color.

"When we put them on, they were stretched and tight, and now they slide all around," said Jessica Brockmeyer, 11. Her group will measure the elasticity of the bands with a gauge borrowed from the University of Maryland Dental School.

The children were clearly thrilled with their work. Many went to Cape Canaveral in August to watch the shuttle launch.

"It's gotten me more into science," said Matthew Dell, 11, of Severn.

"I'm reading more books on science and space." One day, he hopes, he might go into space.

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