Today's lesson: a chat with outer space


For about eight minutes yesterday, students from two Baltimore County schools had an out-of-this-world experience with the help of a small ham radio.

At 6:16 a.m., students from Ridgely Middle School and Lutherville Laboratory for Science, Mathematics and Communications experienced a lecture on space and space travel from Samuel T. Durrance, a Johns Hopkins University research scientist who is 200 miles above the Earth on the shuttle Endeavour.

Dr. Durrance, whose 10-year-old daughter, Susan, attends Lutherville and whose 13-year-old son, Ben, attends Ridgely, helped set up the radio contact with his children's classmates through the Shuttle Radio Experiment (SAREX), a program designed in 1985 to educate students about space using amateur radios.

"I'm pretty proud of him," said Ben, an eighth-grader. "Not many kids have parents up in space. The students here will always remember it. This might be their only chance to talk to someone in space."

Becky Durrance accompanied her children to Lutherville, a magnet elementary school. "I think it's vital that children get the opportunity to talk to astronauts in space like this," Mrs. Durrance said. "It increases their curiosity in science, space travel and communication. It's one thing to read about this in the textbooks, but another thing to actually do it live.

"Sam is very invested in making sure that children are educated on space and space travel. It's a wonderful opportunity for them."

Yesterday's experiment encountered brief trouble when the amateur radio station in Hawaii that linked the school to the shuttle lost its connection. That prevented Ben Durrance from saying hello to his father but was cleared up in time for Dr. Durrance to field questions from students.

Through SAREX, students can talk directly with astronauts while the shuttle orbits the Earth. In preparation, students participated in space-related activities such as tracking the orbit using computer software, eating space food and listening in on shuttle communications.

Amateur radio first became a regular part of shuttle missions in November 1983, when Owen Garriott carried a hand-held ham radio aboard Columbia and talked with ham operators around the world.

"We try to stimulate the kids' imagination and get them interested in science and engineering," said Howard Ziserman, a biochemist and amateur radio operator who has been involved with SAREX since 1985. "It's hands-on education," said Mr. Ziserman, who coordinated efforts to link the Lutherville school to the Hawaii amateur radio station.

The shuttle does not fly far enough north for a direct radio connection with Lutherville, he said.

To participate in yesterday's program, students from both schools had to respond to two questions: What would you like to learn from Dr. Durrance to help the community of Lutherville, and what qualities do you possess that would make you a good candidate?

The students selected by each school were invited to ask Dr. Durrance one question about the shuttle's 16-day mission to study stars using three ultraviolet telescopes. The students were mostly curious about what outer space felt like and what could be seen.

Dr. Durrance, who operates three ultraviolet telescopes on board, told students about the stars and galaxies the crew has been studying.

Ben Morrison, a fourth-grader at Lutherville, wanted to know how the shuttle's discoveries would help the pharmaceutical industry develop disease-fighting drugs. And Jim Stagge, 12, a seventh-grader at Ridgely, asked why astronauts were risking their lives just to gain knowledge.

Another student asked about weightlessness, and yet another asked about time perception. Anna Krupkin was mesmerized by the long-distance conversation.

"I learned about how long it takes them to train for the mission and that there are two people on board to handle medical emergencies," said Anna, a Lutherville fourth-grader. "I didn't get to talk to him, but it was still exciting all the same. I thought that our school talking to him was just really cool because how often do you get to talk to someone in space."

Not all of the students seemed as excited as Anna, but each was eager to ask a question, and each listened with interest to the answer.

"It's hard for them to imagine today, right now, that they are talking to someone in space," said Lutherville Principal Judith Schwartz. "It was almost like they were on the phone in a way. In time though, I think they'll realize the significance of it. Back when I was growing up, our space program was a big deal, and everyone used to watch it on television. It had such an impact on our lives. In some respects, it's a little passe to our children now. Some don't even know the Endeavour is up there right now.

"This really helps renew interest in our space program for children and helps children get interested in science, as well as possibly getting them interested in it for a future career."

Natalie Hardy, a fifth-grader at Lutherville, agreed.

"Science is a little bit neater now," said Natalie, who taped the event for a film her class will enter in the Baltimore Film Festival. "I would never have thought we could ever talk to anyone in space."

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