"After awhile you get used to the delays and failures," said Chad Deisenroth, a 23-year-old senior from Kalispell. "It's just part of the system, I guess."
Deisenroth and five other students and former students this summer were heading for Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where they were planning to get the experiment ready and watch the launch and landing.
But when shuttle Atlantis first showed problems with its propulsion system three weeks ago, NASA grounded and inspected the entire fleet. Sure enough, Columbia--the oldest shuttle and the one slated to carry the MSU experiment--had problems too.
"When we heard about the cracks we thought, 'Of course our shuttle will have cracks too'," said Stephanie Barton, a senior in microbiology from Whitefish. "I wasn't that surprised, because having waited all these years we expected a delay."
Originally scheduled to fly more than two years ago, the experiment will test whether a common bacterium becomes more toxic in space. Pseudomonas bacteria have been found in shuttle water supplies, and NASA is concerned about astronauts getting sick, said MSU microbiologist and project director Barry Pyle.
The fatigue, isolation, tight quarters and long shifts on shuttle flights cause stress, Pyle said, which is thought to suppress the immune system. That can make astronauts especially vulnerable to Pseudomonas infections. He said results from the MSU experiment will help NASA develop strategies to minimize that risk.
"[Immune suppression] happens on space flights. It happens to people in the Antarctic. It happens on submarines," Pyle commented.
NASA accepted the idea for the experiment nearly five years ago, but the lab work didn't begin in earnest until 1998. It takes years to prepare because "you have to have thought of everything," explained Pyle.
Barton started with the project two years ago. First she tested cell stains and then assays that will tell the scientists how much toxin the bacteria produce in space.
"So ever since I've just really enjoyed my time here," Barton said.
She wants a job as a clinical microbiologist with NASA after she graduates next spring and is hoping her experience with the shuttle experiment will help get her in the door.
Kristina Hale, 21, also hopes for a career with NASA after scrapping plans to become a rain forest doctor. Now a senior in microbiology, Hale started in Pyle's lab last fall after tapping out her credit card to get to Bozeman from her native North Carolina.
"To be honest, this is the best thing to happen to me," said Hale.
Others on the project are MSU graduate Lori Richardson of Miles City, now a medical technologist in Spokane; Laura Eaton of Sheridan, Wyo., and Ailyn Perez Osorio of Billings. Lodge Grass High School teacher Megkian Penniman is helping with project this summer. Research assistant Susan Broadaway and postdoctoral scholar Elinor Pulcini work with the students and with Pyle.
Most of the students have had financial support through the Undergraduate Scholars Program and the Montana Space Grant Consortium based at MSU.
Deisenroth, like Barton, has been working toward launch day for several years. He has run some of the experimental procedures dozens of times, with each run through taking a week or more.
"There are multiple things that can go wrong, so you have to get it to work on a consistent basis so that when the time comes, you'll be confident in the techniques," he said.
Although the time nearly came and then didn't, Deisenroth and the others were philosophical.
"Eventually we'll go," Deisenroth said. "We'll just wait for that time."
"It's a daily event," Barton said, "seeing if we're going to get a new e-mail [from NASA]."
Contact: Barry Pyle, (406) 994-3041; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or Susan Broadaway, (406) 994-1744