Space exploration inspires needed mental exploration

Ants.

Who would have thought that these tiny creatures would capture the imagination of a group of high school students and captivate an entire region? Although the "Ants in Space" student research project, one of more than 80 science experiments that comprised NASA's STS-107 mission, didn't return safely to Earth, it imparted the lessons of a lifetime to those involved with it. It should also serve as a reminder that the value of the space program goes well beyond the scientific advances gained on any particular flight.

As citizens and taxpayers, it is our right - indeed, our duty - to ask questions about the value of space flight and to debate the role of men and women in space. It would be terribly shortsighted, however, if we forget to account for how the opportunity and possibility of space can excite and motivate young people. While the scientific results from the ants-in-space experiment won't change the world, the students whose lives it touched very well could.

Fowler High School in Syracuse, N.Y., is an underserved inner-city school whose staff and students are struggling to transform it into a math, science, and preengineering magnet school. How wonderful that a handful of diverse Fowler students were given the opportunity to be part of an ambitious, science-focused space shuttle mission.

These students weren't born when the Gemini and Apollo missions made headlines and focused the world's attention on the mysteries of space. They are too young to remember the exhilaration and subsequent heartbreak of the early years of the space-shuttle program. By the time they were old enough to study space travel, it had become routine, with launches being merely a footnote in the media and a majority of Americans not even knowing if a space shuttle was in orbit at any given time.

But when the Fowler students were given an opportunity to be part of the Columbia mission, they became as excited and engaged as if they were going to space themselves. SpaceHab Inc., Rep. James Walsh (R) and Syracuse University chose Fowler to work with the Space Technology and Research Students (STARS) program because of the school's determination to transform itself. Little did they know how it would energize a student body and increase the pride of the community.

During 2000, Fowler's student-teacher team met with faculty members and students from the College of Engineering and Computer Science at Syracuse University to develop and test an experiment to determine the effect of microgravity on a colony of harvester ants. But it would be three years before their project would get off the ground - three years that might have dampened the enthusiasm of other students. The STS-107 mission, originally scheduled to fly in May 2001, was delayed a dozen times. Some of the students originally involved with the project graduated in the interim, but for the rest of the Ants-in-Space team, it was a lesson in life: patience and determination are prerequisites for success.

Finally, on Jan. 16, the students had the thrill of seeing their hard work rewarded when, in the company of NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe and Rep. Walsh, they watched Columbia rocket toward space with their project aboard. After 16 days of downloading interesting - and potentially valuable - data, the students had a sense of ownership of the STS-107 mission. What a terrible, personal assault, then, to see their mission, their shuttle, their crew destroyed over Texas on the morning of Feb. 1.

In the dark days that followed, the Fowler students made the decision that they would see the project through to completion as a tribute to the Columbia crew. With care and sensitivity, they honored each media request that came their way - using the microphones and cameras to pay homage to the astronauts who were their heroes long before the tragedy.

As the country debates the future of the space program - especially whether humans are required in space - it is important that we factor in this other human part of the calculus. Surely we don't want to run a multibillion dollar program simply to excite kids about math, science, and engineering; but this impact must be considered.

After all, who can account for the future contributions of these young explorers from Fowler High School? Who knows how many other students from around the world - having found out about the fortune of these Fowler kids - pictured themselves following in their footsteps and creating their own space science experiment? These students are already part of history, one of the legacies of the courageous Columbia crew.

Eric F. Spina is associate professor of mechanical, aerospace, and manufacturing engineering and associate dean in Syracuse University's College of Engineering and Computer Science, and adviser to the 'Ants in Space' project.

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