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Originally published Monday, January 31, 2011 at 11:00 PM

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Ballard High science experiment will be sent into space

Ballard High School has one of 16 student teams nationwide that will send a science experiment into space aboard one of the final Space Shuttle program missions.

Seattle Times staff reporter

When Paul Menendez heard his classmates were working on a science experiment that would be sent into space, he joined the team just to have something to do.

"I didn't think I'd like it as much as I did," said Menendez, a senior at Ballard High School. "But once I got into it, it was pretty interesting. How could we make something that could thrive in space?"

That was the question posed to every student at Ballard who wanted to participate in the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program, a national education initiative that lets students design experiments to fly aboard the final flights of the Space Shuttle program.

Ballard High School has one of 16 teams across the country with an experiment slot on the Space Shuttle Endeavour, the second-to-last Space Shuttle program mission, with a target launch date of April 19.

"It's very, very sexy," said Eric Muhs, a physics and astronomy teacher helping to lead the team of 10 Ballard students. "In terms of using this as a platform for getting a lot of students over many years interested in science, I think it will be very effective."

Muhs' students will grow a strand of E. coli bacteria on the Space Shuttle Endeavour, perform tests on it after the mission and then freeze the strand so future students can learn from the cells indefinitely.

Other Washington students will have the opportunity to send their experiments to space for the second round of the program. Those experiments will fly on board the Space Shuttle Atlantis in the final Space Shuttle program mission, provided NASA changes the launch date.

Jeff Goldstein, the creator of the Spaceflight Experiments Program, said the program's second round cannot officially be enabled unless NASA pushes the launch date of the final mission from June 28 to at least the end of August. But he said there's a very high probability that will happen, considering NASA consistently pushes back launch dates.

Ballard High School is the only Washington school that will participate in the second-to-last mission, but the final mission is open to any school district, grades 5-12, in the United States and Canada, as well as U.S. community colleges.

Goldstein said he hopes about 50 student teams will participate in the second mission, engaging 100,000 students nationwide.

The program was created in 2010 by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education, which Goldstein directs, and NanoRacks, a company that lowers the cost of microgravity research for scientists and students. But the baseline cost of $19,950 still hindered some school districts' participation, even though the center offers to help secure funding.

"This program is a commercial space venture," Goldstein said. "It costs real money. If a community wants to do this and we can raise the $20,000 to make it happen, they're taken aboard."

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Ballard High School's participation was funded by the Charles Simonyi Fund for Arts and Science and the Washington NASA Space Grant Consortium at the University of Washington, according to Elaine Woo, the science-program manager of Seattle Public Schools.

"We didn't really have the money but we forged ahead because it seemed like such a good opportunity," Woo said.

The Institute for Systems Biology, a Seattle research institution, also donating scientists' time to the project.

Muhs said the point of the experiment is to teach his students a scientific technique with real-world applications. The process of comparing bacteria that went into space with bacteria that stayed on Earth uses the same techniques that cancer researchers use to learn how cancer cells differ, he said.

"I have for the longest time been looking at how might we be able to immerse a community of students in real science education by giving them the ability to be real scientists and do it in an environment that's inspiring," he said.

Olivia Bobrowsky: 206-464-3195 or obobrowsky@seattletimes.com

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