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USU TEAM SENDS PROJECT TO SPACE SHUTTLE

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Three Utah State University students and a faculty member bade a preliminary farewell last week to a package of experiments set to orbit the Earth aboard the space shuttle Discovery in early September.

Students Casey Hatch, Raghu Tumkur and Dan Tebbs, who represented a nine-member student team, and faculty member Gil Moore spent the week at Cape Kennedy in Florida to ready their Getaway Special (GAS) package for flight. Moore said the USU package is one of six that will fly in September."We worked through some final problems and it is ready to go,"

Moore said. "We've touched it for the last time until it comes back to earth. Now all we can do is wave good-bye at the launch."

Since 1982, NASA's Getaway Special program has allowed students and others to fly small experiments on the space shuttle, provided experimenters have a good idea, the tenacity to meet demanding safety and scientific requirements, and enough money. The experiments must be self-contained and fit into a canister roughly the size of a trash can.

USU was the first GAS customer, thanks to Moore, who was then an aerospace specialist at Thiokol Corporation. Moore bought the first available container, known as a "GAS can," and donated it to the university. Most of the students involved in the current package of experiments were in elementary school when USU launched its first GAS can.

The USU package that was completed and shipped this month includes experiments that will study distillation, convection, heat conduction and photosynthesis in space.

In addition to the usual challenges of science, students had other obstacles to clear before the payload was ready to go. It has been 10 years since USU last flew a GAS can. In the meantime, NASA has produced reams of new safety requirements for experimenters, largely due to the Challenger disaster.

Some of the experiments have been worked on intermittently over the years by a variety of students, many of whom have long since graduated.

"All the projects were started based on pre-Challenger specifications," said Tumkur, the graduate student heading the team. "It was difficult to get back into them with new safety requirements."

Hatch added that since the students bringdifferent skills to the project, there is a strong tendency for them to want to change the experiments they work on.

"When a new person takes over, it is almost like starting over because they have to learn everything from the start and nearly everyone wants to reinvent the experiment," Hatch said.

The 25 students currently involved in USU's GAS program come from a variety of disciplines and are drawn together by their interest in space. Some are biologists, others are studying to be physicists, computer scientists, chemists, engineers, or teachers.

Doing hands-on science has been a great experience for the students who put together the space package. But it meant putting in long hours to get it shipped on deadline. The nine students worked (and sometimes slept) in the lab 20 to 22 hours a day the week prior to shipping their experiments.

Mark Lemon, a recent physics graduate, said, "The janitors and security guys would come by and laugh at us because we all had the same clothes on as the last time they had seen us and we were so tired. The great thing is we all have different strengths and they complement each other."

Faculty advisor Jan Sojka said even when the students were exhausted, each managed to perk up when there was a job to do that required his skills.

"You really learn to depend on the people in the group and the skills they have," said Michael Wilkinson, a junior majoring in computer science. "We worked together and yelled at each other, and we're better because of it. You have to share the things you know and we really learned a lot from each other. I learned more about electronics from this project than I've learned in my entire life."

Matt Droter, a senior biology major, said he has learned that what you read and what really works aren't always the same thing.

"You find out that you can learn a theory from a textbook, but when you take a formula from a book and apply it to a real situation it doesn't always work the way you thought it was going to," Droter said.

For now though, Droter, Wilkinson, Lemon, Tumkur, Tebbs and their colleagues Brett Evans, Oscar Monje, Tina Hubble, and those who paved the way for them, hope that when Discovery next circles the earth, everything in that small canister in the shuttle bay works exactly the way they thought it would.