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A Long-Distance Courier

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Millions of American students had good reason to watch last week's launch of the space shuttle Columbia with unusually intense interest.

In addition to the excitement of the launch itself, up to 4 million students in 250,000 classrooms saw a more practical significance in the event. For them, the shuttle was expected to serve as a long-distance courier that would retrieve materials for them to use in some unique classroom science experiments.

As part of their mission, the shuttle's five astronauts were expected to bring back to Earth an 11-ton satellite that contains, among other items, 12.5 million tomato seeds. The seeds, which were deployed into Earth orbit in 1984, are among 57 experiments aboard the satellite designed to test the exposure of materials to the space environment.

When they return to Earth, the seeds will be sent to the George W. Park Seed Company of Greenwood, S.C., which will distribute them to schools along with a like number of seeds that have been maintained in a ground-based facility.

The Park Company is conducting the project, known as Space Exposed Experiment Developed for Students--or seeds--in partnership with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

"Because this is the first opportunity for long-duration space exposure of living tissues, every classroom experiment will be significant," said Richard H. Truly, nasa's administrator. "I hope millions of students will experience this hands-on, one-of-a-kind experiment and learn that science is fun."

In addition to providing 50 space-borne and 50 control seeds, the firm next month will also send to participating schools instructional materials and computerized data-collection booklets.

Agency officials said they expect pupils in grades 5 through secondary school to compare germination rates and times, seed embryos, phototropic responses, and fruit products. Upper-grade and college students, they said, could perform more sophisticated experiments, including chromosome tests and population-genetics studies.

Educators interested in participating in the project should write: nasa seeds Project, Educational Affairs Division, Code XEO, nasa, Washington, D.C. 20546, and indicate grade level.--rr

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