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A job to do, to honor the Columbia crew

A week and a half ago, as word of the space shuttle Columbia's interrupted homecoming came to me over the radio, the voice of an excited teenage girl played back in my head.

Just a few days into the mission, while still in Florida after witnessing the launch, Rachel Poppe had explained to me in some detail the ant experiment on board the Columbia. I reported in this column three weeks ago how she and some fellow students from Fowler High School in Syracuse, N.Y., had spent three years preparing for their ants to head into space to test the effects of microgravity.

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After having a day on their own to absorb the sad news, Rachel, Brad Miller, Abby Golash, and Liban Mohamed gathered at teacher Charlotte Archabald's home. They quickly decided that completing the research project would be the best way to honor the Columbia crew, whom they never met but nonetheless felt a close connection to.

The students had observed the ants during the mission, and they will have access to key information once NASA releases downloaded data.

Last week, after a tiring round of media interviews, they started to get back to their normal routines. All along, Ms. Archabald says, they've tried to "focus on all the wonderful things that happened up until the last few minutes of the mission."

The ants defied the hypothesis that they would become disoriented and slow their tunneling. Instead, they "tunneled like crazy," the students have said in various interviews, probably because the insects needed less energy in space.

Taking a cue from these results, the students are redoubling their efforts, refusing to become disoriented or give in to the inertia of grief.


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