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High School Students Team with NASA on Space Experiments
08.25.05
When students at Shaker Heights, Ohio's Hathaway Brown preparatory school say they're going to do a science project, they're not messing around. A group of teens at this girls' high school participated in a NASA experiment that was conducted on the International Space Station.

Photo of NASA's engineer and Hathaway Brown student in lab.Image left: NASA engineer Kim de Groh and Hathaway Brown student Catherine McCarthy weigh a polymer sample in the lab at the NASA Glenn Research Center. Credit: NASA

The project is named the Polymers Erosion and Contamination Experiment (PEACE), and it is a collaboration between Hathaway Brown students and engineers at NASA's Glenn Research Center.

It consists of 41 polymer samples that are part of the Materials International Space Station Experiment (MISSE). Managed by NASA's Langley Research Center, MISSE is a collection of thousands of material samples and devices mounted on the outside of the Space Station. Researchers plan to test the samples for long-term durability in the harsh environment of space.

When Discovery landed on August 9, it returned the first two phases of the MISSE experiment (MISSE 1 and 2). Hathaway Brown Senior Catherine McCarthy can't wait to get her hands on the polymer samples.

"Polymers are used as insulation on the outside of spacecraft and for other spacecraft applications," she said. "The results of our experiment could be used to repair Hubble or to build future satellites and space stations."

The partnership between NASA and Hathaway Brown kicked off in 1998 when the school won an experiment reservation on the Space Shuttle from the American Chemical Society. "We didn't want to make up a silly experiment," said the school's Research Director Patty Hunt. "We wanted our project to make a real impact."

School officials approached Bruce Banks, chief of Glenn's Electro-Physics Branch, and Kim de Groh, a senior materials research engineer, for help. The group soon decided that the students should analyze polymers, long-chain molecular materials often used for spacecraft applications due to their light weight and flexibility. Their goal would be to determine which polymers could withstand ultraviolet radiation and atomic oxygen in low-earth orbit.

Atomic oxygen, or oxygen broken into individual atoms by sunlight, hits the International Space Station at 16,000 miles per hour. Those polymers that survive outside the Space Station for long periods of time could be ideal for use on other space stations and satellites.

MISSE experiment and astronaut outside the International Space Station.Image right: Some materials on the experiment were already showing wear when an astronaut photographed them during this spacewalk in August 2003. Credit: NASA

In 2001, four Hathaway Brown students helped de Groh prepare the polymers to fly on STS-105. Together, they fabricated the samples, measured the area and dehydrated mass of each, and mounted them in a special flight sample holder.

On August 10, 2001, the experiment lifted off from Kennedy Space Center aboard Discovery as 24 Glenn researchers and Hathaway Brown students, teachers and parents watched. "It was so moving to see what mankind can do," Hunt said. "We were in awe."

The PEACE team's experiment was scheduled to return in March 2003, but launches halted after the Columbia accident while NASA made safety improvements to the Space Shuttle. Students who participated in the original PEACE team have graduated, but a new group of four young women will help de Groh analyze the results. The group will travel to Langley to collect the samples in September.

In the meantime, the PEACE team students have been studying insulation taken from the Hubble Space Telescope during its fourth servicing mission. They also prepared more polymer samples to fly aboard Discovery on STS-114. Those samples are part of the fifth phase of MISSE (MISSE 5), which Astronaut Soichi Noguchi installed outside the Station during the third STS-114 spacewalk on August 3.

Unlike the first set of polymers, the MISSE 5 PEACE samples face away from the sun, which will allow the PEACE team to study atomic oxygen erosion in the absence of ultraviolet radiation.

MISSE PEACE Experiment Team, Space StationImage right: From left to right, PEACE team members Catherine McCarthy, Rochelle Rucker, Bruce Banks, Kim de Groh, Lily Roberts and Lauren Berger. Credit: NASA

For five weeks in the summer and every Friday during the school year, the students work under de Groh's supervision. They say working with a researcher of her caliber has been both educational and inspiring. "Seeing how much she has accomplished has been encouraging," McCarthy said.

PEACE team graduate Sharon Kaminski agreed. "Kim is amazing. She has a whole family at home, and she's such a great mother," Kaminski said. "Plus, she has done so much important work and published so many award-winning papers."

According to Hunt, the school launched the program to lead more female students into science-related fields. "It is critical to encourage women to go into physical science and engineering. We have a serious shortage," she said. "Our society cannot continue to go on as we have if we underutilize half of the population."

The Glenn and Hathaway Brown partnership has been overwhelmingly successful in achieving Hunt's goal. Almost all of the twelve students who have graduated from the team are pursuing careers in science and technology. Two are attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one just graduated from West Point with a physics degree, and another is pursuing a doctorate in chemistry from Washington State University.

More Information:
Read More about the Materials International Space Station Experiment

Jan Wittry (SGT, Inc.)
NASA's Glenn Research Center