Forget the welcoming committee that handed out roses to team members as they got off the airplane or the police motorcade that escorted the team bus to the hotel or even the armed guards stationed in the hallway--24 hours a day.

For Jennifer Fendrick, a member of the U.S. delegation to the 1999 International Space Olympics in Russia, the first thing she noticed was the odor.

"I love the way it smells like paint and the way the cars are all dirty and the fact that no one wears anything bright," Fendrick, 16, a vivacious junior at Wakefield High School in Arlington, wrote to her friends via the Internet shortly after stepping off the airplane and onto the tarmac at Moscow Airport last month. "I think this trip promises to be nothing short of fascinating."

And indeed it was for Fendrick and two students from Fairfax County who were part of the first team ever from the United States to compete in the international space competition in Korolev, the home of Russia's space program.

Joining Fendrick from Northern Virginia were Nikolas Keramidas, 18, a senior at Fairfax High School in Fairfax City, and Jiaying Yang, 17, a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Annandale. In all, eight students from throughout Virginia, the only state to compete from the United States, were selected by a panel of American scientists to make the trip.

For 10 days last month, the Virginia team joined about 100 students from Russia, Great Britain and Belgium in a science competition in which high school students presented research projects and took grueling, three-hour tests in physics and math.

In between, the students met with and attended lectures by Russian cosmonauts, visited Russia's cosmonaut training facility and toured Moscow landmarks such as the Kremlin and Lenin's tomb.

"Taking the tests was intense," Keramidas said. "In math, we weren't allowed to use calculators."

While the competition, started in 1993, is little known in the United States, it is a national event in Russia, pitting the brightest students against each other.

As a first-time participant, the U.S. team fared better than expected, organizers said.

Fendrick garnered seventh place among the 97 entrants for a research project, which included coming up with a technical, economic or social subject connected with space exploration. The students had to explain the work to a panel of Russian scientists.

Fendrick's work involved Io, one of Jupiter's moons. Her hypothesis was that it is Io, not the sun or some other outside force, that causes the planet to emit radio signals. For the test, Fendrick built a decametric radio telescope hooked to a shortwave radio and for six weeks monitored the signals. The results supported the hypothesis, Fendrick said.

While Yang did not fare as well with her project, which reviewed the advances in radio astronomy interferometry--or linking telescopes together to study the universe--she garnered 10th place in the physics test. No other Virginians placed as high in the competition.

Meanwhile, back at home, friends and family got to follow the exploits of the Virginia team on the Internet as the students provided daily updates of their trip.

"We toured the Kremlin in detail today," Yang said in an Oct. 16 dispatch. "We also saw Lenin. He was scary. I thought he was going to get up anytime."

Participation in the competition was the brainchild of Patricia Wright, director of secondary instruction for the Virginia Department of Education. She learned of the program while visiting Russia a year ago.

On her return to Virginia, Wright proposed a pilot program and garnered support from a consortium of companies and groups involved in space exploration in the Tidewater area.

Eventually, Hughes Space and Communications Co., Virginia's Center for Innovative Technology and the Virginia Air and Space Center provided funding to pay the students' expenses.

In addition to the three from Northern Virginia, the U.S. team included Erin Wiegand, a junior at Giles High School in Pearisburg; Kimberly Ann Meuer, a junior at Franklin County High School in Rocky Mount; Justin Hamilton, a senior at Tabb High School in Yorktown; Robert Beresford MacDermott, a junior at Holston High School in Damascus; and, Paul Otto, a senior at Princess Anne High School in Virginia Beach.

For Fendrick, Keramidas and Yang, the most memorable moments of the visit to Russia were of simple things--eating dinner with a Russian family, getting to know the armed guard named Sergei and taking cold showers.

"The best thing about the competition was seeing how another part of the world works and lives," Keramidas said.

"The way they live is different," Yang added. "They eat a lot. When we went out to lunch we would eat for three hours."

CAPTION: Jennifer Fendrick, at Dulles International Airport after the trip from Russia, models a hat she bought as her mother, Pat McArdie, watches.

CAPTION: Sherry Keramidas hugs son Nikolas, one of eight Virginia teenagers in the Space Olympics.