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Utahns hope to show how to farm in space

LINDON — With a project due at NASA in two months, Pleasant Grove High School seniors Nelson Radmall and Michael Judson only need a few things.

For starters, they could use $2,000 to pay for materials, a bunch of 36-hour days and an incredible machine like the one in the Disney flick, "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids."

Without the shrinking machine, they'll have to work under some pretty intense pressure for the next 60 days. That's when their "Artificial Gravity Growth Unit II" must be done.

The deadline was set by NASA scientists, who want to start testing the unit for a ride on a space shuttle.

They need to know the project is tough enough to withstand the rigors of launch, space travel and re-entry — once it's shrunk to fit within the parameters allowed in the space allotted for high school experiments in a shuttle's cargo bay.

"Yeah, we're working in a pretty intense pressure window," Judson said as he and Radmall studied with Ken Hardman, a mechanical engineer for Boeing.

"It'll be a fun, little challenge," said Hardman. "But it could be very valuable not only for them but for future space missions."

Astronauts stationed in space rely on supplies sent up in shuttles because the weightless environment makes growing food nearly impossible. Despite last month's disaster involving the shuttle Columbia, which killed all seven astronauts on board, another shuttle is scheduled to launch this summer to deliver supplies to the astronauts in space.

Judson and Radmall are trying to create a simple artificial environment that will allow wheat to sprout, even under tremendous pressure.

The two teens, who have won three successive regional, national and international science fairs with their project, which was one of four out of 1,200 accepted for a shuttle mission, believe they can prove the plants inside the experimental module will grow like those left behind on Earth, subject to the planet's natural gravity.

For the shuttle flight, in addition to ensuring that their seedlings remain viable and get water, Judson and Radmall must keep them dormant as they wait for months until takeoff and then fix the results after 80 hours of experimentation in space so usable data can be collected after the shuttle returns to Earth.

They can't allow the seeds to freeze or get too hot. Everything must operate without failure or without reliance on human intervention.

"We have some pretty very strict guidelines from NASA," Judson explained. "The space we have is 15 inches by 7 inches by 3.25 inches. We can't have any leakage. It has to be able to withstand the pressure, noise and vibrations of launch. It can't weigh over five pounds."

To complete the project, the boys need a tiny motor, a tiny Solenoid pump, tubing, specialized storage containers and vials to hold the seedlings.

"If it doesn't exist, we'll build it," Hardman said.

Hardman hopes a machine shop owner will step forward to help the teens. He's offering his expertise and time because he feels like Radmall and Judson deserve a helping hand.

"Young people like this are our future," he said.


E-MAIL: haddoc@desnews.com