BELTSVILLE – The heavy, barrel-sized canister had been unbolted and hoisted away, leaving the flat, black box exposed on a table in the center of the bare industrial room.
DuVal High School student Romain Deonarine, surrounded by television cameras and an anxious audience of 40, peered into the blackness of the small habitat searching for signs of life.
“They’re alive,” he said calmly, after seeing an antenna twitch on one of the handful of cockroaches that a group of DuVal students sent into orbit last month on the space shuttle Discovery.
A cheer erupted from his classmates and teachers, who sealed the bugs in the space container in July.
The return and opening of the canister Tuesday was the culmination of seven years of work by DuVal students and teachers to get the roaches on the space shuttle.
The roaches — three adult American cockroaches, three nymphs and three eggcases — were sent up in the same shuttle flight with Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, in November.
DuVal students did not until Tuesday how their astro-roaches survived the months-long isolation and subsequent space flight. Besides the one adult initially spied by Romain, one of the nymphs also survived.
The adult — named Dan after their teacher Dan Caron — not only survived, but appears to have grown since July.
“He’s faster than he was before, he’s a little bit bigger too,” said Romaine, who was able to identify Dan because of the bug’s light-colored wings.
The students will give the two surviving roaches to classmates in a biological study group, who will conduct further post-flight tests to see what differences a micro-gravity environment may have on cockroach lifestyle.
Seven DuVal students who were most involved in the project saw the roaches blast off into space a month ago at the Kennedy Space Flight Center in Florida.
“To go and see the shuttle take off was an honor, and to have an experiment on the shuttle is a blessing,” said senior Anthony Young.
He was in charge of the roach habitat’s support system and the camera that monitored the insects during their spaceflight, when they subsisted on a diet of dog biscuits and water.
The students expected anything from no survivors when they opened the canister to finding as many as 80 roaches, after a similar experiment on Earth yielded a breeding population.
But the survival of two roaches was deemed a success by the students.
The DuVal roaches are the first animals to survive in NASA’s Get Away Special — or GAS — program, said Russ Griffin, NASA’s shuttle small-payload field manager. GAS makes space available on the shuttle for self-contained experiments at what Griffin called the relatively low price of $10,000 per 5-cubic-foot canister.
But just to get a container to ride on the shuttle required a lot of work.
DuVal senior Russell Alderson, who called himself the “roach technician,” tested the insects’ hardiness before the shuttle flight to make sure they could survive the ride into space. He found that the roaches could survive up to 5 G’s, well over the 3 G’s they would experience on takeoff.
He also found they could survive freezing temperatures for up to 15 minutes — important in a canister that was carried in the shuttle’s payload bay.
Kelli Staples, a junior, was the thermal engineer on the project. She calculated how much battery power was needed to keep the roaches from freezing in the payload bay.
Also on the DuVal space-roach team were seniors Jonathan Peake and Lawrence Gabourel ’98 graduate Nikki Fuoco, and teachers Caron, John Henrici, and Lynn Harden.
The DuVal students may have something new in the works but won’t reveal what it could be. Romain and Anthony joked that it is top-secret, “Area 51 stuff.”