Most high school students would cringe at the prospect of spending part of their summer in library reference stacks poring over back issues of Aviation Week or dusty volumes of Ben Finney's "Interstellar Migrations and the Human Experience."

But nearly 400 teenagers from across the country, including three from the District, spent three weeks this summer at American and Georgetown universities doing just that.

They also paid up to $1,300 apiece.

All were members of high school debate teams, and this was a chance to prepare for next year's debate circuit with lead coaches from some of the best university and high school teams in the nation.

The topic, as set by the National Forensic League for all high school tournaments next school year, is whether the United States should significantly increase exploration of outer space.

Participants are an intense, driven group of college-bound students, many of them bent on becoming trial lawyers or journalists, the coaches said. They are the type that actually enjoys lectures on space topics and debate theory, hours of research and the practice debates that lead up to the programs' three-day tournaments.

They also are fiercely competitive, said Dallas Perkins, head debate coach at Harvard University, who taught at the American University program. He said he attended in part because his school won't hold debate institutes because of their toll on university libraries.

"Stuff gets razor-bladed every year," he said.

At the Georgetown library "almost all of the pages in the Readers Guide on space have been ripped out," said Matt Silverstein, 15, from Chicago, who attended the Georgetown program earlier this summer.

"Once you get better at it, you get more into it," said Nate Tassler, 16, of Capitol Hill, a junior at Georgetown Day School who attended the program at American.

American and Georgetown are among 40 or 50 U.S. colleges offering such summer programs, said Jim Copeland, executive secretary of the National Forensic League. They also are among the best in the country.

Both have top-notch debate teams and easy access to the District's wealth of research resources.

From the broad issue of the merits of space exploration, debate rounds quickly degenerate into arguments over anti-satellite weapons tests or the budgetary effects of restructuring NASA. And the more evidence the debaters gather, the better their edge.

"People have gone every day to the Library of Congress, the Naval Observatory library and the NASA library," said Chris Burk, 17, a debater from Dallas in the Georgetown program.

James Unger, director of American's institute, said some students also go right to members of Congress. Instructors have been known to drive their students to the Capitol and drop them off to roam the halls and collect documents, he said.

Organizers maintain that the programs are excellent training for future leaders.

"There is no better activity to prepare someone for a profession," said Scott Segal, a local lawyer and former debater who coached students at American.

"It's the hardest letter in the school out of 16 sports," said Jesse Rosenthal, 16, of Burke, a participant in American's program.

"It's much harder to defeat someone mentally than physically," echoed James Frary, 17, of Seattle. "Also, it'll get you into college."