NEW ORLEANS — Leanne Sorrel, 11, could talk someone’s ear off when it came to murine myoblasts and the details surrounding her team’s science experiment that landed a place on board the Space Shuttle Endeavor’s last mission.
But when the rising sixth-grader from Zachary was asked about the opportunity to see two astronauts, she could only say, “Wow.”
Sorrel and classmate Alexis Albert, also 11, traveled to NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans recently for a private tour of the place where the external fuel tanks for the space shuttle program were built. They got to hear a presentation on the Endeavor mission from astronauts to Michoud workers.
That was enough to earn a “Wow” from Sorrel.
What she and Albert didn’t know was that they would be called on stage and personally congratulated by the astronauts and they would have a private meeting with them afterward.
The students, who were in the fifth grade last year, were two of six team members from Copper Mill Elementary School whose science experiment was chosen last year by a national space education group for a place on the Endeavor’s final flight.
The other fifth-grade team members, who were not able to attend the New Orleans event, are Grace Dry, Madison Russell, Tyler Jackson and Jake O’Brien.
The students’ experiment asked, “How does microgravity affect the development of murine myoblasts?”
A myoblast is a precursor to a muscle cell, and “murine” refers to mice.
The Zachary students were competing with elementary through high school students from across the United States for a place on board the space shuttle.
At Michoud, they were called on stage and introduced as “two of Louisiana’s finest” by Mark Bryant, vice president of the Lockheed Martin External Tank Project at Michoud.
Astronauts Mike Fincke and Gregory Chamitoff then showed pictures and video of the space shuttle launch and mission work on board Endeavor.
The mission was the final flight for Endeavor and the second to last flight for the space shuttle program. Space Shuttle Atlantis completed the final mission Thursday.
Endeavor delivered an alpha magnetic spectrometer to the International Space Station. The machine is designed to help researchers study the formation of the universe and search for evidence of dark matter, strange matter and antimatter.
Endeavor also delivered supplies to help sustain space station operations now that the shuttles are retired from service.
The mission featured several spacewalks to do maintenance work and install new components.
In the private meeting, the girls got a chance to explain their experiment to the astronauts, including some disappointing results.
The myoblasts were placed into vials with a glucose and distilled water mixture as a nutrient base.
Unfortunately, the vial that was placed on board the space shuttle was contaminated with bacteria that killed the myoblasts, Sorrel said.
Albert said the students should have added penicillin to the vials to suppress bacteria growth.
It was a learning experience.
“We learned a lot about cells,” Albert said.
“And about how science works,” Sorrel added.
“Yours isn’t the only experiment that ran into trouble,” Chamitoff said. “That’s what science is all about.”
Before the creation of the International Space Station, astronauts would sometimes have to wait years — for the next space shuttle launch — to correct an experiment that went wrong.
With the space station, astronauts are able to run an experiment over and over again and change things as they go, he said.
The astronauts also took time to answer several questions about their training.
Fincke said he had not previously operated the shuttle’s robotic arm, so he underwent new training for this mission.
“I have a way of learning that I keep trying, keep listening to my instructors,” Fincke said.
It may take him a while, he said, but once he masters something, “I’m like one of those animals that never forgets.”
“An elephant?” the girls asked together.
Fincke also told them that space walks are the toughest part of the experience.
“You have to train a long time,” he said.
“Nothing is impossible,” Chamitoff added. “Whatever you want to do, you keep working at it … the more you do, the more you accomplish, they (each task) get easier and easier.”
Fincke told them that the astronaut crew was also made up of six members.
“By working together, we were able to do some very amazing things,” he said.
In addition, the students presented their results at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., as well as to the local Metro Council, Zachary School Board and Zachary City Council.
Albert was able to attend the Endeavor launch May 19.
Professors at LSU and Southern University assisted the students in getting the project ready for the trip to Cape Canaveral.
The program required a $15,000 entry fee, and the team’s sponsors included the Louisiana Space Consortium and the Zachary Community School District.