Mission to Mars may begin on this Idaho reservation

The door of teacher Ed Galindo's classroom at Shoshone-Bannock High School reads: Yih'Yih'Tzin Agudu Duvoponeed.

In the local Uto-Aztecan dialect, it's a rough translation of the word "biology." And every Friday, teenage members of the "NASA Club" gather here to prepare experiments for Space Shuttle missions, which, sometime in the future, could lead to putting a human on Mars.

"It won't be our generation that goes to Mars," Mr. Galindo says, patting student Amber Larkin on the back. "It will be hers and those behind her. I want these kids to feel that they have a place in space."

The idea of a manned mission to Mars, though admittedly still years off, has undeniable appeal. Already, scientists from Colorado to the Arctic Circle are racing to prepare probes, rovers, and even facilities for a Martian rendezvous. But Galindo's team is perhaps the most unusual.

After all, the partnership with NASA is about more than just rockets and moonsuits. The young tribal members have given NASA officials a unique perspective on space exploration. In turn, the agency is helping a generation of native-American kids - historically beset by high dropout rates and a lack of interest in science - reach out to other worlds and beyond.

"Indians have a tradition of living off the land as they travel, and now they're helping to make living off the land possible on another planet," says Dan Swanson, a spokesman at TechLink, a Bozeman, Mont., firm that matches high tech with practical applications.

Most recently, the students here at the Fort Hall Indian Reservation have joined NASA and J.R. Simplot Co. in conducting a "spuds in space" experiment. The idea is to prepare simulated Martian soil and send it up in the Space Shuttle to see if crops grow.

The research centers on zeolite, a volcanic material abundant on both the Fort Hall Reservation and on Mars. Zeolite can be used as a soil additive that slowly releases plant nutrients, and it is also a potential filter that transforms liquid waste into drinkable water. These functions are crucial in space travel, because a manned mission to Mars would last four to five years, and astronauts would have to manufacture their own food and water.

Galindo acknowledges that there's a profound juxtaposition in native-American kids from one of the poorest places in the US gaining a tangible connection to some of the most costly equipment ever built.

High school senior Eric Johnnie says the NASA club (which, around here, stands for Native American Science Association) has broadened his horizons. After taking a field trip with Galindo to the Kennedy Space Center, he's considering a career in astroscience.

"Our experiments with shuttle missions prove that once you put your mind to something you can accomplish anything," Eric says. "It doesn't matter where you come from."

Interest in space has been keen for decades in this part of Idaho. During the Apollo era, prototypes for the moon rover were tested nearby in the lava fields at Craters of the Moon National Monument.

Later, during the 1990s, Galindo entered his high school students in a university-level competition aimed at creating a shuttle experiment. They won, but not due to any favoritism.

"I didn't want anyone there to cut us slack because we are Indian, so I never mentioned it in the application," Galindo says. "We found we could compete with universities and win a place based on our merit, not on our minority status."

For their part, NASA officials say they need to incorporate more minorities, drawing on their different experiences and perspectives.

"The greatest minds sometimes can't see the solution to a problem because they have been looking at it through the same magnifying glass for a long time," says Charles Galindo (no relation to Ed) of NASA's Advanced Life Support Program at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. "A fresh pair of eyes may see something that an older pair did not see."

Indeed, native peoples bring a completely different lens to Martian study, says teacher Ed Galindo, holding simulated Martian soil in his hands. "Rather than landing, colonizing and eventually claiming the planet for humankind, we want to get there, learn what we can about why it became a barren place and take the information home to prevent the same thing from happening here."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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