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SWT students’ experiment lost in space

News 8 Austin (02/02/2003)

By Natasha Allen

The space shuttle Columbia disaster hit close to home for many Texans. Two astronauts were from Texas, and a third went to UT at Arlington. The state is also strewn with debris. Now, this news affects Southwest Texas State University students.

The SWT experiment dealt with bacterial growth in weightlessness. Columbia was on a science mission, to perform experiments in zero gravity. One of the experiments was prepared by SWT Biology Professor Robert McLean and three students.

Like a proud parent, McLean has an article written on the experiment he and his three students sent up in space posted on his laboratory refrigerator. The four of them worked many long hours to get the experiment launched.

“Bacteria live as mixtures on earth, and we were just going to ask the simple question, ‘does gravity have any influences to how organisms interact with each other?’” McLean said.

The other half of the experiment, the control group, still sits in the lab. The students would have compared the space experiment with it.

On Jan. 15, two of the students, along with McLean, left Austin and headed to Florida to watch Columbia launch, full of excitement.

“It was a beautiful day, hardly any clouds in the sky, and they were just thrilled,” McLean said.

Saturday, that excitement was dashed.

McLean and student Geronimo Cortez were on their way to Florida to pick up the experiment, but got the bad news before they left. McLean said both of them are still stunned.

While the lost is great, McLean and his students are keeping it in perspective.

“It is disappointing when something like this happens, ’cause we put in several thousand dollars, but that’s money, although it’s nice to have, you can go get some more,” he said.

He says right now, he’s more concerned with the lost lives than the lost experiment. McLean also sent up an experiment up with John Glenn in 1998.