Wearing winter clothes, Andrew Frank entered a minus 20 degrees Celsius freezer at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida earlier this month to help insert hundreds of biological samples into a tiny device destined for a mission in space.
But the unit wouldn't quite fit into the 4-by-4-by-6-inch box required for the mission, so the 16-year-old Boy Scout with Palatine-based Troop 209 and other volunteers improvised with tinier screws and silicon tape to seal the container. After eight hours working off and on in the deep freeze, Frank was shaking from the cold, but the device was cleared for liftoff.
With that, a two-year process to build an experiment capable of testing DNA mutations in space while meeting strict NASA specifications was complete.
The project was chosen from a competition among Chicago-area troops sponsored by Boy Scouts of America and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, which runs the U.S. laboratory on the International Space Station. Some of the Scouts will be on hand to watch when the experiment is due to launch aboard a SpaceX rocket from the Florida space center on Monday.
"It's been a huge learning experience," said Frank, the team leader. "I had never done anything like this."
The experiment will test genetic mutations of bacteria in low gravity. Using a procedure called the Ames test, the Scouts will examine how much E. coli cultures change in space and compare that with what happens to them on Earth.
If they find changes in mutations, the Scouts said, it might suggest better ways to fight cancer or grow tissue to heal wounds.
"At the beginning, it's just really cool to do something that's going into outer space," said team mentor Norm McFarland. "By the end, the Scouts were coming up with their own solutions to problems they were finding."
Their device will take photos of each culture repeatedly throughout the flight, checking for a telltale color change from purple to yellow.
To fit a testing device into the restricted space, the Scouts tried out multiple designs, cameras and motors, finally settling on an octagon-shaped carousel that rotates the samples so they can be photographed. Sensors also track time, temperature and humidity.
The device must do all that without using more than the allotted power limit of about 2.5 watts, a small fraction of the power commonly used by lightbulbs.
When astronauts return the experiment to Earth after about a month, the Scouts will check the results, then run the same experiment under the same conditions but in normal gravity.
Some 20 Scouts, age 11 to 18, worked on the project, putting in more than 5,000 hours of meeting time.
The team had guidance from many adults including McFarland, an electrical engineer who retired from Siemens Building Technologies after helping develop numerous patents. Among those who also assisted were a microbiologist and a father who helped fabricate the aluminum parts for the device.
The Scouts themselves designed and soldered a circuit board to help make their experiment work. They even included a position sensor, so if the space station loses power temporarily, the device can reset itself.
Frank and teammate Harmon Bhasin were in Florida before the launch to explain their project at a NASA preflight news conference.
Adult volunteer Kathleen Cassady said she was impressed by how the Scouts grew during the project.
"I thought this would be a good thing to get them interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math)," she said, "but I never thought it would also give them the soft skills, to be able to work as a team, provide leadership and problem-solve."
Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune
Members of Palatine Boy Scout Troop 209 built this device to test genetic mutations of bacteria in low gravity. Its scheduled to launch on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017, aboard a SpaceX rocket in Florida.
Members of Palatine Boy Scout Troop 209 built this device to test genetic mutations of bacteria in low gravity. Its scheduled to launch on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017, aboard a SpaceX rocket in Florida. (Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune)
This isn't the only Scout experiment chosen for the space station. Explorer Post 2400, which includes males and females up to age 20 out of Calumet College of St. Joseph in Whiting, was chosen for the next space launch this fall, to test the effect of low gravity on peptides, which are thought to play a key role in Alzheimer's disease.
One of the faculty leaders on the project, Sandra Chimon Rogers, chairwoman of the college's department of biophysical chemistry and math, said the team developed an infrared spectrometer that fit into the tiny space allowed and cost only about $700, rather than the tens of thousands of dollars such devices often cost.
"It's an amazing opportunity for them, and more students should be aware of it," Rogers said.
In addition, a team of students from Deerfield High School won a separate competition to send their experiment on Monday's launch. They will test different materials for their ability to provide a shield from radiation, which could prove crucial to any long-range space mission, such as an expedition to Mars.
That Go For Launch! competition was sponsored by Higher Orbits, a nonprofit that promotes science and technology, and was judged in part by a former astronaut, Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger.
One of the students on the Deerfield team, 16-year-old Chirag Goel, said he was thrilled at the opportunity.
"To look into the night sky and to be a small part of that is humbling," Goel said. "To tell your kids I helped design an experiment to go into space ... what could be cooler than that?"
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