Prince George's and Montgomery county schools have got a ticket to ride in the cramped quarters of a space shuttle scheduled for flight in early 1985.
Thanks to a Lanham aerospace consulting firm, the school systems will share a 5-cubic-foot aluminum canister that will be carried in the cargo hold on a NASA shuttle. The canister will have enough room for a number of student experiments on the effect of weightlessness and other space phenomena.
Under NASA's "Get Away Special" program, shuttle space is sold for experiments that can be put in containers and that don't require much attention from the astronauts.
Prince George's and Montgomery will be among the first public school systems to take part in the program, Prince George's schools spokesman Kathy Snyder said.
Since the shuttle program began, NASA has sold fringe space for experiments to both domestic and foreign educational institutions and businesses. In May 1981, Orbital Systems Ltd., a Lanham aerospace consulting firm, paid $10,000 for a spot on a 1985 flight and donated it to the schools.
"We're excited for the kids," said Orbital's James Gitchell. "It's a chance to fly in the space shuttle--how many times can you do that? It's not like a science fair; it's the real world."
Orbital, a 2 1/2-year-old company, is located in Prince George's, but because many of its employes live in Montgomery, the firm decided to split the 200-pound payload between school systems of the two counties. Scientists from the company, as well as NASA officials from the nearby Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, will be advisers for the experiments.
More than 200 students, teachers and administrators attended a NASA sponsored orientation at Goddard recently to get information on the project.
"It was very upbeat," Snyder said. "I knew it would be sophisticated, but it was really sophisticated. There is really a lot of technology going into that."
Snyder praised Orbital for its donation to the area's school systems. Gitchell, who worked 20 years for NASA, said he hopes the effort of his small firm will lure other large science- and space-related companies in the area, such as IBM, Comsat and Fairchild Industries, into doing more to prepare local students for the space age.
The school systems will work separately to develop experiments to fit their respective halves of the canister. Prince George's is encouraging ideas from its 20 high schools and will review and develop the proposals over the next two years.
The experiments must be totally self-contained and safe, said Goddard's Elva Bailey, director of educational programs. On the most recent shuttle flight, the German government studied liquid metals in a weightless environment.
Gitchell emphasized that the project should involve hundreds of high school students in planning, building and supporting services.
"It's not just the kid who is good in science," he said. "You need kids in electrical shop, mechanical shop -- you need kids in English to do the writing. You need a team to do that. That's how NASA does it."