A man's passion for planets leads to launch date for his project


Oakland Mills resident David Brain still has longings to fulfill his quixotic childhood dream to be the first human on Mars.

While Mr. Brain, 21, a Rice University senior, won't be launching into another orbit anytime soon, an experiment he helped design to analyze the effects of gravity on early stages of plant growth will. Mr. Brain's "Get Away Special Canister" experiment -- or GAS Can -- will be in the cargo bay of NASA's Endeavor space shuttle mission scheduled for launch Aug. 18 at Cape Canaveral, Fla.

The experiment designed by Mr. Brain and several partners calls for four types of fast-germinating vegetable seeds -- tomato, lettuce, radish and turnip -- to be placed in a small canister, where they will be nourished through automated devices over nine days in space.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has a program that allows schools, government agencies and other groups to propose an experiment that can fit in a canister aboard a shuttle.

If all goes well, Mr. Brain will be able to examine gases given off by the seeds, cell growth and other biological processes and characteristics, and then compare those seeds to ones germinated on earth. He hopes to find clues as to why plant roots grow down on Earth and the stem up, according to gravity.

"These studies will be important to growing crops in space," Mr. Brain said.

"The push now is for plants recycling themselves" without the need to transport supplies on shuttles to sustain them, he said.

The 1991 Oakland Mills High School graduate has been fascinated with space exploration ever since he watched a space shuttle launch on television when he was about 6.

He became hooked after attending U.S. Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala., after fifth grade in 1984, where he had a chance to simulate shuttle missions.

"It was a really incredible week," he said. "I decided I definitely wanted to do something space-related as a career -- astronaut, engineer or scientist."

He's well on his way, having worked at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt for the past seven summers, developing telerobotics, calibrating light detectors, programming computers to handle observance data from Mars and building electrical circuits.

"He's covered a lot of disciplines. In that respect, David is very unique," said Mario Acuna, an astrophysicist and principal investigator for the Mars Geoscience Surveyor Mission at Goddard. "He's very adaptable. You can put him to work with his hands or with his head, and you can drive him to get lunch for you. He says yes to everything."

Naturally, Mr. Brain, who carried a straight "A" average in high school and began working at Goddard after his freshman year, has taken some ribbing about his name.

"Every time I meet a new group of people, the name is a big thing for a while," he said.

He said sheepishly that he's doing "OK" at Rice -- "not perfect, but above average" in his studies as a space physics and math double major.

Planetary sciences are a passion, but not an all-consuming one for Mr. Brain. At Rice, he's on the rowing team, plays intramural volleyball, basketball and ultimate Frisbee, visits elementary schools to make presentations each month and works in the admissions office.

He plans to earn a Ph.D. in some branch of the planetary sciences, but may take a few years off to teach in an inner-city school or on an American Indian reservation, he said.

Mr. Brain attended space camp for a second time in 1986, when he started working on a GAS Can proposal. The camp owned a NASA GAS Can.

His first proposal was rejected, but in 1987 NASA asked him and three other students to more fully develop the seed-germination proposal. The experiment was accepted in 1988 and has waited its turn for launch.

To keep the seeds from floating, they will be placed between layers of filter paper, which will absorb a water and nutrient solution pumped in from a balloon. Before the shuttle re-enters the Earth's atmosphere, a formaldehyde solution in another balloon will be pumped in to preserve the growth stage of the seeds.

Mr. Brain has helped Dr. Acuna develop computer programs and electrical circuits for current and future Mars observance projects. Dr. Acuna said Mr. Brain could serve a valuable role as an "ambassador" informing younger generations of the significance of space exploration and the everyday relevance of discoveries.

Mars always has been his main interest, Mr. Brain said. "It's a lot like Earth, but something happened -- it's not as much like Earth now as it was. So if you can understand what evolution Mars went through, you can understand the past and future of the Earth," he said.

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