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As the space shuttle Endeavour blasted off through the blue Florida sky Monday morning, three juniors at Hillcrest High School eagerly watched television screens.
The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program selected 16 experiments from across the country to accompany six astronauts headed for the International Space Station, and theirs was one of them.
The students are working to determine the effects of microgravity on frog embryo development, and they sent two African clawed frog embryos into space while their siblings will remain on Earth as a control group. The experiment will take a particular look at a substance in the body called a morphogen, specifically activin, which dictates the development of the central nervous system.
After the shuttle returns in 16 days, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration will ship the embryos back to the students so juniors Megan Dolle, Keltson Howell and Nikos Liodakis can compare the frogs' physiology with the control group.
The students had a highly restricted space to work with the embryos are in a container about the size of a chalkboard eraser and they were limited on what materials they could use. All three traveled to Kennedy Space Center earlier in May for Endeavour's original launch date. They were disappointed they didn't get to see the launch live, but were impressed by the "space and science culture" that exists at NASA.
"It's really inspiring and really cool," Dolle said. "We were immersed in space and science culture, and I didn't realize how important this was until I got there."
All three students said they felt lucky to get to participate in the program that sent their experiment into space on Endeavour, the second-to-last shuttle mission before the program is retired.
The Hillcrest High School students weren't the only ones to have an experiment go up with the shuttle. Five Brigham Young University graduate students designed new circuits that can be used on devices such as the Mars rovers and other remotely controlled objects.
Mike Wirthlin, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, worked with BYU students and Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico to design a circuit that could better resist radiation that commonly harms electronics in space.
"Radiation upsets the electronic circuits, but these anticipate it and then operate correctly even though it occurs," Wirthlin said.
The experiment designed by five students Jon-Paul Anderson ,Will Howes, Patrick Ostler, Brian Pratt and Nathan Rollins will require a space walk to attach the experiment to the outside of the International Space Station. But because this is one of the last space shuttle launches, it will stay up indefinitely transmitting data on its performance back to NASA.
"There are several theses that can come back," Wirthlin said, saying one student has already begun work on one.
BYU isn't the only university with equipment that launched Monday.
Endeavour is also carrying a miniaturized star camera designed and built by Space Dynamics Lab in Logan under contract with the U.S. Navy Research Laboratory. The instrument is to be installed on the space station to confirm its ability to process images of the stars that are crucial to satellite navigation, according to Quinn Young, a mechanical engineer who manages satellite technologies for SDL.
SDL is a division of the Utah State University Research Foundation.
To accomplish their missions, satellites must be pointed in the right direction. Star cameras enable controllers to accurately adjust the satellite's position based on its orientation with certain stars. The problem: existing cameras are too large for the next generation of tiny research satellites, such as the 10-centimeter CubeSat.
For the Navy contract, SDL adapted its Digital Imaging Space Camera, or DISC, to meet the Navy's specifications. The new hardware in Endeavour's payload is not much bigger than a brick and uses a commercial lens off a 35 mm camera, Young said.
This version will download the images to the ground for processing, but later versions will process the images onboard.
Nothing would have launched into the heavens without the reusable solid rocket motors designed and made by Utah-based company Alliant Techsystems (ATK). The company sent a piece of history into space Monday, as the casing on the left booster was the same one used on Endeavour's first flight on May 7, 1992.
ATK officials say they will use their knowledge of the 268 space shuttle solid rocket motors launched into space to work on the rockets that will be designed to send new space vehicles into orbit and beyond.
"The post-flight data we've gained from recovering the boosters over the past three decades has provided the knowledge to truly understand the motors' performance and make improvements throughout the program, leading to the most understood and most reliable human-rated solid propulsion system in existence," said Blake Larson, ATK Aerospace Systems Group president.
This is the 25th and final flight of Endeavour, the baby of NASA's shuttle fleet. It was built to replace Challenger, destroyed during liftoff 25 years ago this past January, and made its maiden journey six years later to capture and repair a stranded satellite. That first flight ended 19 years ago Monday.
Endeavour carried the first Hubble Space Telescope repair team, which famously restored the observatory's vision in 1993, and the first American piece of the space station in 1998. It will end its days at the California Science Center in Los Angeles.
On this last Endeavour flight, American Mike Fincke and Italian Roberto Vittori are making their first shuttle voyage, though they've been to the space station twice, ferried by Russian Soyuz rockets.
Fincke will team up with Andrew Feustel and Gregory Chamitoff for four spacewalks during the 16-day mission. It will be the last spacewalks conducted by a shuttle crew.
NASA officials said it will be a demanding flight, including the unprecedented departure of a three-person Soyuz capsule while Endeavour is there. The shuttle and station crews will sleep at different times to accommodate the Soyuz undocking next Monday, just five days after the shuttle's arrival.
NASA's last shuttle flight, by Atlantis, is targeted for July. After that, Atlantis will remain at Kennedy, where it will go on display. Discovery will head to the Smithsonian Institution's hangar outside Washington.
American astronauts, meanwhile, will continue to hitch rides to the space station on Soyuz rockets. The White House wants NASA focusing on eventual expeditions to asteroids and Mars, unfeasible as long as the shuttles are flying given budget constraints.
Tribune reporter Brian Maffly and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Endeavour By the numbers
116 million miles logged
4,500 times circled Earth
283 days spent in space
170 people carried into space