By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun
8:24 PM EDT, May 25, 2012
As the space capsule called Dragon hurtled toward the International Space Station at about 17,500 miles per hour on Friday, no space enthusiast was more enthralled than Paul Warren, a self-described "nerd" who attends Henry E. Lackey High School in Charles County.
Warren is one of 15 students from across the U.S. whose original science experiments are aboard the capsule, the first privately built spacecraft ever sent to the station. His project sends thousands of tiny roundworms into orbit to study the effects on their life spans — research that could lead to a better understanding of how space travel affects the human body.
"This will make history," Warren, 16, said at his school an hour or so before the capsule docked at the space station. "This will show that, yes, we can have commercial spacecraft go up and connect with the International Space Station."
"Did you know," he added, "that our experiments are the only scientific payload being delivered?"
NASA, which made the decision to cancel its space shuttle program in 2004, called the docking a landmark moment in its conntinuing effort to hand space delivery duties over to the private sector.
Warren designed and proposed his experiment as part the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program, an initiative of the Capitol Heights-based National Center for Earth and Space Science Education, a nonprofit organization that has been sponsoring nationwide competitions among fifth- through 12th-graders since 2010.
If all goes well, Warren's experiment, formally known as "Physiological effects of microgravity and increased levels of Radiation on wild type and genetically engineered Caenorhabditis elegans," will allow him and other scientists to study how time spent in outer space affects the development, reproductive traits and life span of a particular species of roundworm.
It was chosen from among 779 proposals submitted by students in communities across the country..
"The researchers I've met say that getting an experiment like this into space usually takes three years and costs hundreds of thousands of dollars," Warren said. "At some level, I still don't believe this has happened. Then I open up the newspaper and see another article — 'Fifteen dreams headed for the stars' – and I remember it's real," he said.
The slightly built Warren, who just completed a semester in which he took five Advanced Placement and two honors courses, said a million things had to fall into place for the project to happen. School officials and teachers had to back him. His particular experiment had to catch the eye of officials who chose the final 15.
In truth, he has been preparing for the opportunity for a long time.
The son of an astrophysicist, Warren has always loved problems of reason and logic — a favorite grade-school present from his parents was a book of logic puzzles — and is given to self-education. When Charles County doesn't offer an advanced course in a given subject, he visits educational websites and studies books for a week or so, then tackles the standardized exam.
He has taken 10 AP tests this year, five in self-taught subjects, amassing enough college credits that he could qualify as a sophomore at some universities.
"One of the impressive things about Paul is that he's positioning himself; he has a plan," said James Short, the principal at Lackey High in Indian Head.
That plan, said Warren, includes going on to a high-powered institution like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or the California Institute of Technology, if he's admitted, and then to a career in engineering.
This year isn't the first time he has taken part in the competition — or succeeded. Short learned about the program two years ago and, in concert with educators throughout the county, invited all students between fifth and 12th grades to propose ideas for experiments.
Charles County became one of 15 communities around the nation to take part. A team Warren was on pitched an idea involving mustard plants.
It won. The experiment ended up aboard Atlantis, a NASA space shuttle, for its last voyage, and the students and their families were flown to Cape Canaveral to watch the launch — an experience Warren calls "unforgettable," especially the drama of the countdown.
Lackey chemistry teacher Romulo Gabriel, one of two faculty facilitators for the project, said the materials were compromised during space travel, rendering results inconclusive. "I always tell the students that space is the most hostile environment of all," he said.
But the experience prepared Warren to get involved a second time. This year, he pursued an interest of his own and devised the experiment himself.
Like scientists since the 1960s, he has long been interested in Caenorhabditis elegans — a species of tiny, translucent roundworm better known as C. elegans — because of a variety of properties that make it easy to study. It reproduces quickly, for one thing, spawning a new generation in only three days, which means investigators can observe genetic changes over a short span of time. Its genetic structure also can be easily mutated.
All that led Warren to Ted.com, an educational website, where he viewed a talk by Cynthia Kenyon, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco who said that if you mutate a single C. elegans gene, the so-called DAF gene, you extend its life span by 200 percent.
Research, she added, also suggests that altering the DAF gene in humans might expand the human life span — a statement that got Warren's attention.
Warren, who believes there will come a time when human beings routinely travel in space, saw this as an opportunity to test on a microscopic level how space travel might affect the travelers' life spans. To that end, he proposed sending two kinds of C. elegans into space: the variety found in nature ("wild type") and a type that would be genetically altered.
The astronauts aboard the International Space Station would tend his materials — a 6.39-millileter tube filled with liquid as well as 4,500 worms of each strain — during the 61/2 weeks they'll be on board. Warren would tend an identical set of materials on earth during the same period of time.
Then, after NASA and SpaceX – the Hawthorne, Calif.-based firm that built and launched the rocket — bring the capsule back via splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, they'd send the experiment back East, where Warren would be able to contrast the astronauts' results to his own, creating a clean comparison.
As Warren refined the experiment, he contacted scientists around the world for their input, and some were "positively giddy" to be involved, science teacher Gabriel said. Those included Nathaniel Szewcyk, a professor of clinical physiology at the University of Nottingham in England who was already studying how testing the worms could help open up travel into deep space.
Earlier this spring, Szewcyk flew to America at his own expense to visit Warren at Lackey High, and the pair gave a talk that was delivered online to students throughout Charles County. Other investigators at the National Institutes of Health became interested, offering Warren lab space and use of a special "worm sorter."
"It's just the kind of scientific research we want young people to experience," said Jeff Goldstein, director of the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education. "In the real world, science isn't done in isolation. It's a community activity."
Warren, who missed the launch this year because he was preparing for yet another AP exam, has been tracking the progress of Dragon since Tuesday. He appeared relaxed but said he was excited as the coupling neared.
Once the SpaceX capsule was docked to the Harmony capsule of the space station, crew members hauled in 1,000 pounds of basic supplies, much of it laundry, and the crate containing the student experiments.
As he walked the hallways between classes, though, Warren seemed for all the world like just another of the school's 1,200 students.
"I don't think you'd say Paul is normal," said principal Short of Warren, who is also a member of the varsity swim team and president of the school's Key Club. "But one of the things we love about him is that he is normal. He relates to everybody here. That has increased interest in what he's doing. It has been great for the county and the school."
Indeed, as the historic moment happened, Warren was discussing his plans for the evening, which included taking a girlfriend to the school prom. He didn't find out until later that the docking had taken place.
Even so, he seemed confident that all systems were go. "I shot for the stars," he said with a quiet smile, "and it looks like I'm making it."
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