Among the millions of dollars in experiments going along on the space shuttle mission planned for next July will be a $50,000 metal canister, mounted on $50,000 worth of special shelving and containing . . . shrimp.

Brine shrimp, to be precise, that are the subject of an experiment by an informal "space shuttle club" of Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville.

The club, a group of about 20 honor science students, has undertaken a complex experiment to determine the effect of light and gravity on primitive life forms. On Earth, brine shrimp align themselves with the Sun, pointing their heads toward the light. But in space, under zero gravity and deliberately varied light conditions, the reaction may be different, the young scientists believe.

"Down here the shrimp swim with their bodies curved downward," said team leader Jeff Weinfeld, 17. "But in space, with no light and no gravity, we feel they won't be able to."

Like most scientific endeavors, this simple-sounding experiment has demanded considerable time, effort and personnel. It began more than two years ago, with club members who have now graduated. The idea originated with Mike Kwan.

In 1982, Orbital Systems Limited, a Lanham company that specializes in space hardware -- and which owns the canisters and shelving that will be used for the shrimp -- began reserving shuttle space for the experiments of Montgomery and Prince George's county students.

Most high schools in both counties submitted scientific proposals in a competition.

The company pays for the reserved space on the shuttle and the equipment used on board, but not for the experiment preparation. The shrimp canisters will be mounted in the cargo bay, which will be opened in space for the experiments.

The brine shrimp project was one of 16 from schools in suburban Maryland scheduled for the July shuttle mission. They are the only high school experiments on the flight, which will be the seventh to take student projects into space in three years.

Other Maryland high schools that are sending experiments to NASA include Fort Washington, Bowie, Oxon Hill, Roosevelt, Northwestern, Suitland, Bethesda-Chevy Chase, Blair, Seneca Valley and Gaithersburg. Projects range from root growth direction in plants to the effect of gravity on capillary action.

Six previous payloads containing high school experiments have been shuttled by NASA under its "Getaway" program. NASA technical liaison Clarke Prouty says the program allows kids to experience scientific achievement while in school and to make valuable contacts in the scientific community.

The Wootton club receives no official assistance from the school system. While this places the entire $2,000 burden on the club, many of the 20 members say they like the creative independence of the project, a contrast to the constraints of science classes.

"In school all the experiments are so contrived," said sophomore Brett Richey, 15. "They've been done every year, the same things. Here, we're going into areas where no one has ever gone before. It'll be nice to tell my grandchildren that I helped put something like this into action."

"It's been a lot more work than we thought," acknowledged senior George Sampson, 17. "When we started, everything was hypothetical. We didn't even know how we were going to get this thing into space in the first place. We had to do research, analyze, design, and find all the parts we need. Now we have to test them."

"It takes a ton of commitment," said sophomore Anne Freeh, 15. "It's not fun. A lot of people join us thinking it will be. They soon drop out."

Money is proving to be a problem, however. Said team fund-raiser Richey, "If every student in this school gave a dollar, we'd be just $300 short. But so far it hasn't happened."

The lack of funds was highlighted recently during a scientific hardware convention at Goddard. "A couple of us went to check it out," recalls Sampson. "There were industrialists all over the place selling equipment. We saw a tool we needed and I said, 'Oh wow, how much?' The guy replied, 'Only $50,000.' And that was with a discount!"

The notion of sending a canister of shrimp into orbit might not seem very complicated, at first glance. But, say the young scientists, any number of problems may arise.

The shrimp may not hatch properly (scheduled to occur during takeoff to assure the necessary disorientation), a sudden jolt could damage something, or the 24 ounces of aquarium water could begin to leak. Most variables have been considered by the teen-agers. But they say there may be others. And to work out those problems in advance, they need motors, a fluorescent light, heaters, a sequencer (a small computer that can regulate light intensity, switch cameras and record data), and a camera.

The experiment will not end with the spacecraft's return to Earth after approximately seven days. The shuttle club next semester must analyze the test results and record them in minute detail.

"It's an awesome, ongoing thing," Richey said. "And some of us won't even be here when it's over. But everyone knows they've done their part."And as the students gathered around their model of the space shuttle Challenger, it became obvious that its challenge had been eagerly accepted.