By Annie Thompson
SAN MARCOS — When the Columbia was launched Jan. 16, it carried a biological experiment designed by three Southwest Texas State University students and their professor.
On Saturday, the experiment was the last thing on their minds.
“The immediate priority for me and the students has to be the families of the astronauts involved in the accident,” said Bob McLean, an associate professor of biology.
McLean said he heard the news on the radio while en route to the San Antonio airport, where he planned to depart for Florida.
One of McLean’s students, Geronimo Cortez, was to accompany him on the trip. The pair planned to analyze the results of their experiment once the shuttle landed.
The professor and student canceled their trip. There was no need to go.
The experiment, which sought to determine whether bacteria form biofilms in microgravity, included three types of bacteria: E. coli, pseudomonas and chromobacterium.
The students and professor hoped research would be beneficial in developing efficient ways to recycle water in space.
“The experiment can probably be duplicated, but lives cannot,” Shanika Glenn said.
The Columbia’s 16-day mission featured more than 80 experiments ranging from the effects of space travel on astronauts to the possibility of creating a new perfume from outer space.
Spiders, flowers, cancer cells, ants, carpenter bees, fish embryos, silkworms and rats all were on board.
The Columbia was the first shuttle in three years not headed to the international space station or the Hubble Space Telescope. Many of the scientists had waited years to put their work into space.
The Israel Space Agency and Tel Aviv University sponsored one such experiment, which involved aiming a pair of cameras at the Mediterranean and Atlantic in search of huge dust plumes that might affect the weather.
Perhaps the most commercially viable experiment on board was sponsored by International Flavors Fragrances Inc., which sent a miniature red rose plant with six buds and an Asian rice flower with a jasmine scent. Astronauts extracted and preserved essential oils from the flowers so fragrance experts back home could recreate the smell.McLean, Glenn and another member of the San Marcos team, Sandra Beccara, attended the shuttle launch in Florida.
“It was amazing. I never thought I’d actually be able to see something like that in my life,” Beccara said.
She eagerly awaited the shuttle’s return.
“I woke up very happy because it was the first (of February) and the shuttle was coming back. I turned on the TV to find that seven lives had been lost, and that was not happy for me,” Beccara said.
The students are involved in a program called Bridges to Baccalaureate, a cooperative program between SWT and Alamo Community College District in San Antonio.
The program is funded by the National Institutes of Health and encourages minority students to pursue careers in biomedical science.