In Final Space Shuttle Flight, A Science Experiment from Hartford's Annie Fisher School
By VANESSA DE LA TORRE,
July 07, 2011
HARTFORD —— As hundreds of thousands descend on Florida for the final liftoff of Space Shuttle Atlantis, 13-year-old Justice Dawkins will likely view the launch from the TV in his North End home, content with his bit role in the annals of American spaceflight.
Mission STS-135 will be the last of NASA's space shuttle program whenAtlantis launches from Kennedy Space Center, scheduled for 11:26 a.m. Friday, barring thunderstorms that could postpone the takeoff until the weekend.
A crew of four astronauts will man the 12-day mission to deliver spare parts and supplies to the International Space Station orbiting 240 miles above Earth.
The historic flight also will carry a student-designed science experiment and a mission patch from the Annie Fisher STEM Magnet School in Hartford.
Annie Fisher is among 11 schools in the nation and the only one from Connecticut to participate in theAtlantis mission through the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program, a year-old initiative from the nonprofit National Center for Earth and Space Science Education inWashington, D.C.
In May, after a jubilant school assembly in which Principal Melody Brady announced the honor, students at the new K-8 magnet school on Plainfield Street competed against one another for the right to have their work blasted off into space.
Lunchtime turned into a deliberation session. Recess became less about play than strategizing about the project and "how they can make it better," said Rachael Manzer, an educator at the school who flew to Florida Thursday to witness the launch from one of NASA's VIP viewing sections.
Mirroring the science, technology, engineering and mathematics industries — the "STEM" in the Annie Fisher name — the school also had its own project managers in the form of student council members.
Students had some professional assistance, too. Engineers from Hamilton Sundstrand mentored the school's fifth- to eighth-graders, who were responsible for developing potential experiments. A panel of Hamilton scientists and engineers picked the top three team proposals, which were sent to the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education for review.
Students in kindergarten through fourth grade were charged with designing an unofficial mission patch on 4-inch-by-4-inch paper that Hamilton employees judged. Second-grader Janiel Sanchez created the winning entry that will fly inside Atlantis, a colorful drawing of a shuttle flanked by yellow stars and "Hartford, CT" written in the bottom right corner.
Hamilton Sundstrand, a United Technologies Corp. subsidiary, and the Connecticut Space Grant helped sponsor the $20,000 cost for Annie Fisher's participation in the flight.
The chosen experiment — the effect of microgravity on tomato growth — includes only a few tomato seeds and enough soil and water to fit inside a skinny vial the length of a thumbnail.
The seeds are expected to ride at least 4 million miles on Atlantis.
Together, Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavor traveled more than 500 million miles at an orbital velocity up to 17,500 mph — or as NASA proudly put it, "10 times the speed of a high-powered rifle bullet."
The astronauts aboard Atlantis, the 135th and concluding mission of the 30-year-old space shuttle program, will be flight Commander Christopher Ferguson, pilot Doug Hurley and mission specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim.
The eighth-graders who designed the experiment were Dawkins, Ramone Clahar, Alonzo Clarke and David Jackson.
"I had my doubts, because we did it on such short notice," Dawkins said. "Five days."
"I was surprised," said Jackson, 14, of Hartford, who, like Dawkins, will be a freshman at the University High School of Science and Engineering. He thought the concept might be too simple.
But Manzer said that learning to develop a food source for astronauts in microgravity ties into NASA's next phase of deep space exploration.
"This was an opportunity for the students to do real science," said Manzer, one of seven educators in the U.S. who have been training for a commercial space flight as part of Teachers in Space. "It really has taken their learning to new heights — literally. This isn't anything you can get from a textbook."
Some Annie Fisher students have volunteered to monitor the seeds over the summer once they have returned from Atlantis and presumably start growing into a tomato plant. The seeds germinated in space will be compared to ones grown on Earth.
The school plans to send a report of its findings to the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education this fall. A post-launch party at Annie Fisher likely will happen when students return for the new academic year, Manzer said.
For 9-year-old Bryce Curtin, a student council treasurer who served as a third-grade project manager, the celebration could begin as soon as Friday, assuming bad weather doesn't ground the flight.
The Bristol boy is part of a small group of Annie Fisher students, family members and teachers who paid their way to watch the shuttle launch alongside NASA employees and relatives at Kennedy Space Center's KARS Park.
"I get to be part of history," Bryce said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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