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At Hartford's Annie Fisher School, Seeing The Results Of Shuttle Experiment


July 25, 2011

HARTFORD Inside the FedEx package that arrived at the Annie Fisher STEM Magnet School Monday morning were the two most well-traveled tomato seeds on Earth.

The sender's city, scribbled in blue ink on the packing slip, was Kennedy Space Center, Fla.

If Keith Sevigny ever needed to consult a gardening expert, now was the time.

"Even though I'm a science teacher, I have a brown thumb," said Sevigny, 29. "Everything I try to grow just dies."

The North End school's science experiment the effect of microgravity on tomato growth cost $20,000 and rode in the middeck of Atlantis on STS-135, the final mission of NASA's 30-year-old space shuttle program. Mission Specialist Rex Walheim, one of four astronauts onboard, watered the two seeds in orbit.

Atlantis landed on Thursday after 5.3 million miles and nearly 13 days in space.

On Monday, Principal Melony Brady admitted her anxiety as she walked toward the biology lab. What if none of the seeds germinated?

"I really have no idea what to expect," she said.

Shortly after 1 p.m., once Sevigny had called Gledhill Nursery in West Hartford for tips and rounded up students Ramone Clahar, Justice Dawkins and David Jackson, the group gathered in the lab with two representatives from Hamilton Sundstrand, which helped sponsor the project.

Brady cut through the packing tape with the sharp edge of one of Sevigny's keys.

Ramone, 13, picked up a small plastic vial, scrutinizing what looked like a brown pebble with a white root pierced through it.

"Whoa," he whispered. Then a little louder: "It sprouted."

"Is it a boy or a girl?" joked David, 14.

Ramone, Justice, David and Alonzo Clarke designed the experiment in May as eighth-graders through the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program, an initiative of the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education in Washington, D.C. Annie Fisher was one of 11 schools in the country to take part in the Atlantis mission, and the boys won a schoolwide competition for the right to have their experiment blast off with the shuttle on July 8.

The experiment needed to fit in the tiniest of slots only 125 microliters and the length of a thumbnail. It is testing the possibilities of developing a food source for astronauts in space.

"It couldn't sink in that my project was on that launch," said Ramone, who will be a freshman at Northwest Catholic High School in West Hartford. He watched the launch on TV in his Hartford living room.

"Surreal part of history," said Justice, 13, who will attend the University High School of Science and Engineering in Hartford.

They interrupted their summer vacation Monday to carefully extract the germinated seed from the vial. They found a second, fuzzy seed in the vial's cap that did not sprout.

Both were planted in peat pots alongside three tomato seeds that will germinate exclusively on Earth, under grow lights in the lab at Annie Fisher.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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