HOUSTON — Compared with the great scientific discoveries of this century, some experiments being conducted aboard the current space-shuttle mission might appear downright goofy.
There's the experiment to measure the effects of weightlessness on a pair of toadfish. There's the effort to create more fragrant perfumes in space. And then, there's the great American cockroach, which one Maryland high school class will be studying to see if weightlessness affects the bug's body rhythms and appetites.
(No word yet on whether bugs dine any differently on pellets 340 miles up.)
While much of the attention has focused on John Glenn's sleep patterns and bone mass, the vast majority of the work aboard Discovery involves hundreds of experiments that could produce the food, medicines, and funky gadgets of tomorrow.
Such experiments may not have the emotional tug of leaving boot prints on the moon, but they represent the evolving purpose of the National Aeronautic and Space Administration. The science conducted aboard NASA's space shuttles, experts say, may end up having as much impact on the lives or ordinary earthlings as rocket science itself.
"It's myopic to say, 'Where's this all going to lead?' " says Larry Pinsky, a physicist at the University of Houston.
Even the 19th-century Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell, credited with discovering that light was just another form of electromagnetism, had no idea his discovery would make possible all the computers, radios, light bulbs, and VCRs that 20th-century folks take for granted.
So, if the scientists in charge can't predict the possible applications of their study, Dr. Pinsky says, it's unfair to cheer some experiments and jeer others. "If we don't know where major discoveries are going to come from, then we should roll back ignorance on a broad front."
At Vero Beach High School, in Vero Beach, Fla., Carol Haffield's science students are pushing back the final frontier by studying a pack of ordinary radish seeds. They have added a growth hormone, gibberlic acid, to radish seeds in a canister aboard Discovery and another set of seeds here on Earth.
In theory, the hormone should coat the seeds more evenly in zero-gravity than it would on earth, and result in sturdier, more productive plants in the limited confines of a future space station or lunar colony. "This is a chance of a lifetime," says John Soethe, a junior at Vero Beach and one of four students who constructed the radish-seed experiment, beating out 100 other student experiments in a citywide contest. "I don't guarantee it will work, but I'm sure hoping."
At the University of Wisconsin, chemistry professor Norm Draeger is hoping to develop a more fragrant rose in space, which could have lucrative applications in the highly competitive and fickle perfume industry.
"In theory, zero gravity may cause a change in the essential oils that create the fragrance of a rose," says Dr. Draeger, director of the Wisconsin Center for Space Automation and Robotics in Madison, and one of the developers of the project for the New York-based perfume company International Flavors and Fragrances. "I think it's fair to say that in this industry, anything that is novel to consumers has value, if it's pleasing." He pauses. "I hope it will be pleasing."
FOR its part, NASA selects experiments for shuttle missions on the basis of several criteria, from the size of an experimental canister to its scientific merit. For school-based experiments, such as Vero Beach's radishes, NASA also accounts for the number of students involved and the educational benefit. The educational benefits of this are "pretty obvious," says Ruthan Lewis, mission manager of the many self-contained scientific experimental modules aboard Discovery. "We're allowing students a very economical access to space."
Of course, it's not all cockroaches, radishes, and cologne. Shuttle experiments also include a number of studies that could expand understanding of the universe and provide neat gadgets on earth. There's a powerful solar telescope to study why the sun's upper atmosphere, called corona, is so much hotter than the rest of the sun.
There's an experiment that measures the accumulation of cosmic dust to enable scientists to understand when and how the universe was formed. There's even an ultraviolet telescope aimed at the volcanic action on Jupiter's moon, Io, to determine whether the satellite could support life.
For science reporters, describing the research aboard Discovery can be a challenge. Many of the experiments are so advanced that they are difficult for people to conceptualize.
"I had a world-class physiologist friend who ... used to talk about things that were well beyond my limited grasp," says Robert Heath, a communications professor at the University of Houston. "The problem is, when you boil it down to the average understanding, it usually ends up sounding ridiculous, and that's an injustice to the scientific process."
It's a challenge that Kurt Krause, a University of Houston biochemist and crystallographer, well recognizes. Several years ago, he helped design a shuttle experiment to grow protein crystals to help produce a more effective drug. Describing such a new and arcane science to an average Joe can take as much energy as the experiment itself. "The way I describe it is like fitting pieces of a puzzle," says Dr. Krause. As for his own experiment, alas, it failed but Krause says he would send another experiment aboard the shuttle at the drop of a petri dish. "I think it's a valuable tool in the armament."