Washington — Chickens from outer space? Don't laugh. Somebody's spent five years trying to figure this one out.
That somebody is James Vellinger of Lafayette, Ind., who will be entering his sophomore year this fall as a mechanical engineering student at Purdue University.
Mr. Vellinger was the 1983 winner of the of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's National Science Competition. So his experiment, which is designed to see what effect weightlessness has on the development of chicken embryos, will fly on a shuttle mission early next year.
That means his sponsor, Kentucky Fried Chicken, a.k.a. the Colonel, gets to follow Coke and Pepsi as the next consumer brand name to festoon a space shuttle mission.
Vellinger looks forward to the day when space will be populated by space people and, later, space babies. The experiment, he says, should ``give us some data about the feasibility of raising chickens as a food source in space and, longer term, whether humans can reproduce in a weightless environment.''
The idea is to put 32 farm-fresh chicken eggs in a specially insulated and shockproofed container of Vellinger's design. The container is placed inside one of the shuttle's storage bins. The eggs will be lofted on a shuttle flight early next year -- possibly in January -- and subjected to the weightlessness of space during the seven-day mission.
It takes about 20 days for eggs to hatch, but Vellinger says most of a chicken embryo's development occurs during the first 11 days; just the period when the space eggs will be orbiting Earth.
After the shuttle lands, the eggs will remain at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida for about 10 days until they begin to hatch.
Meanwhile, a second batch of ``control'' eggs will have been comfortably gestating in an incubator at Houston's Johnson Space Center.
The two groups are supposed to be compared so embryologists can draw some conclusions about what effect gravity, or the lack thereof, has on embryos. With this experiment, the Colonel put up $50,000 to further the cause of science, part of a program it sponsors to aid science education in the United States.
``It's all part of being a good corporate citizen,'' explains Kentucky Fried Chicken Vice-President Gregg M. Reynolds.
Mr. Reynolds' does recall, however, that this sense of corporate citizenship once did not include sponsoring the first Kentucky-fried space shuttle experiment. Indeed, when NASA officials first approached the company with the idea of backing young Vellinger's space venture, Reynolds recalls that he ``wasn't certain it made all that much sense.''
Kentucky Fried Chicken officials were won over by Vellinger's hard work, and the enthusiasm of NASA officials for the project.
Vellinger calls the Colonel's sponsorship ``a vote of confidence for the young people of America.''
For its part, Kentucky Fried Chicken officially denies that the experiment marks the start of an attempt to open up a fast food franchise in low-earth orbit.