NEW FREEDOM, Pa. - Alexis Anelli, age 5, and her preschool class at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church sent tomato seeds into space aboard the space shuttle Columbia as part of an experiment. Now she can't understand why her seeds won't come back down, like they were supposed to.
"I got the little seeds, put them into these little cups," Alexis said, making motions like she was picking up treasures with her thumb and forefinger. "And then they sent the seeds up with the astronauts. ... " Her voice trailed off.
"Do you know what happened to them?" asked her mother, Kristy Anelli.
"I don't remember," the child replied, shrugging her shoulders.
Her parents told her already, but it didn't sink in. She still wanted those seeds back, so she could plant them in the dirt and see if the tomatoes would grow, as her teacher had promised. Maybe they wouldn't grow at all. Or maybe they'd grow purple, or triangle-shaped, or so huge that aliens would come down and eat them - something really weird and amazing because of their exposure to space.
"Alexis," said her father, Mark Anelli, trying to be patient in explaining. "If a plane crashed, and the seeds were on that plane - what would happen to them?"
Alexis looked off into the distance, trying to imagine an airplane crashing. Her hands moved like she was smashing a paper airplane and trying to figure what would happen to the things inside. "They broke and died," she said quietly, looking down.
Many parents have struggled with what to tell their children about the disintegration of the shuttle Columbia and the death of its seven astronauts. In many cases, older children seem to grasp the idea of a crash, parents say, and preschoolers can be shielded from the news.
But the families of the 65 children here in St. John the Baptist preschool classes have been forced into the unusual position of trying to explain the tragedy to kids as young as 4 because the children were involved in a NASA program to encourage science education.
Like older students in New Jersey, Israel and elsewhere, the children in the pre-kindergarten here were allowed by the space agency to pack small amounts of seeds and other materials into the payload of the shuttle. The intention was to find out if weightlessness alters materials, just as it reduces the density of bones.
Kathy Rohr, the director of preschool education at St. John's, said the children looked forward to planting the seeds to see if they would still grow after floating in space. "You should have heard the hypotheses these children came up with," Rohr said, laughing. "Some wondered if the 'space tomatoes' might taste different from the 'earth tomatoes.'"
The connection between NASA and a Catholic school in this rural Pennsylvania town just over the Maryland line came from a parent named Mike Wright, a payload test manager for NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, whose 4-year-old son, Alex, is enrolled at St. John's.
Last winter, Wright visited the class and showed the children videos of astronauts on board the Columbia. He passed around a model of a space shuttle. And he handed out more than a dozen glass vials - each about the size of a cigar - that the children filled with hundreds of tomato seeds, Rohr said.
Wright then took the vials back to NASA, and they were eventually loaded aboard the Columbia.
"Yesterday morning [on Saturday], I came downstairs all excited and told my wife, 'Oh! Today is the day the seeds are coming back to Earth!" said Rohr's husband, Gordon, who also helps at the preschool. "But then my daughter called me and said, 'Dad, did you see what happened to the Columbia?' and we turned on the TV. It was just shocking. The end of the experiment seems so insignificant compared to such a horrible loss of human life."
During the 9 a.m. children's Mass yesterday, hundreds of parishioners held candles and prayed for the crew of the Columbia. The Rev. Michael Reid asked the children to join him at the altar, and more than 30 kids formed a semicircle around him as he raised his hands and blessed the bread and wine.
After the service, parents reflected on their struggles to explain the crash to their youngest children.
Jay Brusse, a 34-year-old contract engineer at the Goddard Space Flight Center, said he tried to explain to his 3-year-old son, Luke, the meaning of the streaks of fire shown on television.
"I talk to him about it a lot," said Brusse, as his son, dressed in a green and yellow plaid shirt, performed some acrobatics on a kneeler in the pews. "And Luke told me that he hopes that God has plenty of toys for the astronauts to play with up there."
Todd Riley, a 40-year-old Baltimore city firefighter whose son, Colin, 5, sent seeds onto the shuttle, said: "What can you tell your kids about this? My parents never talked about anything negative like this."
Another parent, Anne Johannson, who is 40 and lives nearby in Stewartstown, Pa., said she hasn't yet told her 4-year-old daughter, Diana, that her seeds aren't coming back.
"She has no concept of it," Johannson said, watching her daughter play nearby. "I made my husband turn off the radio and TV yesterday. I don't want her to get all upset. The 'Care Bears' movie is too violent for her."
Johannson remembered that she was only a few years older than her daughter when she first saw astronauts on television, a memory she will never forget. "I was just a little kid, sitting in the living room with my family gathered all around me, watching the man walk on the moon for the first time. I think the space program means a lot for our generation. I thought it would be great to have my daughter involved in the space program, too."