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Kids team with researchers for space shuttle experiment

Date of release: 10/14/98

SAN MARCOS, TEXAS — The eyes of the world may be focused on John Glenn’s historic return to space when the Space Shuttle Discovery is launched Oct. 29, but for a much younger group of Texas public school students, Discovery’s voyage also holds a special meaning.

Eight middle and elementary school students from Port Lavaca and Wimberley are helping Southwest Texas State University researchers with an experiment that may affect the future of interplanetary travel.

The experiment involves the growth of biofilms, bacterial infestations that can cause corrosion and clog reverse osmosis water purification systems. Biofilm formation is common on Earth, but it has never been documented in microgravity environments in space. If it occurs there, it has the potential to foul water recycling systems necessary for prolonged space flights.

“Interplanetary travel will require the recycling of water. If biofilms grow in space and if no remedy to the problem is found, then it could seriously jeopardize the ability of humans to survive interplanetary travel,” said Robert McLean, professor of biology at SWT.

Biofilm formation, which is related to bacterial attachment, is already a multimillion dollar problem on earth. The experiment may eventually lead to new methods of preventing biofilms on Earth and in spacecraft.

The project is led by McLean and other scientists from SWT’s Institute for Environmental and Industrial Sciences (IEIS). Student participation is directed by Sherrie Krause and Robin Sonsel, teachers at Travis Middle School in Port Lavaca. The experiment is being conducted on behalf of a Pennsylvania company, Instrumentation Technology Associates, and will be carried by the CIBX-1 payload.

The involvement of the public school students in the experiment came at the suggestion of officials at Formosa Plastics, a company that contributed money to SWT to create the IEIS in 1993.

“The students have shown a very genuine interest in this experiment. They’ve been learning about microbiology, and they’ve been keeping individual journals during the project. But their real hands-on work will come after the experiment returns from space and we work together to analyze results in the lab,” said McLean.

Students involved in the project will travel to Florida for the shuttle launch on Oct. 29. McLean will miss the launch, but will collect the bacterial cultures and bring them to SWT after the mission is over.

McLean will seek to publish the results of the experiment, and he plans to encourage the students to write their own paper and have it published in an education journal.

Students participating from Port Lavaca’s Travis Middle School include Brent Krause, Justin Franke, Thomas Sanchez, Keri Mounger and Kristen Scott. Malcolm McLean and Keller Tiemann from Bowen Intermediate School in Wimberley are also participating, as well as Alistair McLean from Scudder Primary School in Wimberley.