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Astronaut's appearance gives Pa. kids a boost

April 03, 2000|By DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Getting 400 people into a school on a weekend without a basketball game or a dance takes the kind of draw the Franklin County Science & Technology Fair 2000 had Sunday: Space shuttle astronaut Jim Pawelczyk.

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Pawelczyk, 39, described the sensation of liftoff on his 1998 mission aboard the shuttle Columbia. The doctorate-holding Penn State University physiologist rode along with six other astronauts, 170 rats and about 2,000 fish on the 16-day mission.

"It's a pretty big kick in the back. ... To be sitting on top of that much power is quite an experience," Pawelczyk said.

Dressed in a blue NASA jumpsuit, Pawelczyk said he studied the effects of microgravity on the brain and nervous system. In a weightless environment, the flow of blood to the brain changes, and the long-term effects need to be known if man is to venture farther into space.

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Pawelczyk said a journey to Mars could take three years, including a six-month trip either way and two years on the planet. He said his research could also be applied to problems here on Earth, such as Alzheimer's Disease.

Osteoporosis, the loss of bone mineral, is another serious obstacle to space exploration. The rate of loss in a weightless environment is 15 times the rate of post-menopausal women, Pawelczyk said.

Pawelczyk later described the shuttle's crew space as being about the size of two bathrooms, but comfortable in microgravity. "You can use it in three dimensions," he said. "If it's crowded in one spot, you can hang out on the ceiling."

To get a good night's sleep in orbit, he said he strapped a pillow to the side of his face. Other astronauts slept in cabinets or strapped into sacks, he said.

More than 500 exhibits were displayed at the fair, which ran Saturday and Sunday. They ranged from such science fair classics as the papier-mache volcano to the more esoteric "Wired Tadpoles" experiment of Adam George, a student at Waynesboro Area Middle School.

"Do not give tadpoles caffeine!" was the conclusion he wrote on his display.

Michael Brown, another Waynesboro Area Middle School student, investigated the effects of chemicals on fungus growth. "Ammonia is used as a cleaner and I thought it would kill the fungus off," he said. Instead his experiment showed it promoted fungus growth.

Gwen Umbreit of Chambersburg, who is home-schooled, came away with a first-place life science prize on composting "to reduce the amount of trash thrown away." Umbreit, an 11th-grader who wants to teach environmental science, found red worms readily devoured newspapers but were less fond of leaves and wood chips.

Quinn Cashell, a student at Marion Elementary School chewed several brands of gum "to see if my temperature would go higher or lower." She discovered the friction of chewing raised the temperature in her mouth but the brand, whether Winterfresh or Big Red, had no effect.

David Goldenberg, Penn State Mont Alto chief executive officer, was impressed by an experiment on the effects of music on foul shooting. The experiment concluded that participants listening to country music at the charity stripe hit almost twice as many shots as those listening to rap music.

"You all started with an important question. Something that was of interest to you," Pawelczyk told the experimenters.

"I'm often asked, 'What to I need to do to become an astronaut? I usually give them two words: Math and science," he said.

"You're never going to achieve a dream unless you try. ... And that trying starts now," he said.

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