Michael Brandy, Deseret News
Former U.S. Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah, right, talks to students, Megan Dolle, left, Keltson Howell and Nikos Liodakis.

MIDVALE — A Hillcrest High School science experiment will be one of the last things loaded on the Space Shuttle Endeavour in February when it leaves earth for what's slated to be its last ride.

The experiment by three juniors that will test the effects of microgravity on the development of an African pond frog embryo is one of 16 chosen for the historic trip.

Former Sen. Jake Garn made a surprise visit to the high school Tuesday to congratulate Keltson Howell, Megan Dolle and Nikos Liodakis, who came up with the idea for what will be the only Utah experiment included. Garn, a longtime airplane pilot, was a payload specialist on Space Shuttle Discovery in 1985, circling earth 110 times.

Dolle described herself to reporters as "obsessed with biology," while Howell said he loves math and physics. And Liodakis said he's an old hand at experiments and has participated in science fairs since seventh grade.

Convincing the students to participate in the challenge was easy, said their science teacher, Jonathan Miller. "If I can present the right material in the right way, that's all that needs to be done."

As students listened raptly, Garn described vividly and often humorously the experience of circling in low Earth orbit, from spilling his drink to see what it would look like in zero-gravity (a no-no they had to suck up with straws before it got into any of the equipment) to traveling at 17,500 miles per hour, which was fast enough to make one orbit every 90 minutes. That meant 16 sunrises and sunsets in a day. "A watch is rather worthless up there," he noted.

"I am here to tell you how jealous I am of all you young people for the opportunities that await you in the future," Garn said. "Train your brain."

He predicted the students would have opportunities to experience and see things not yet conceived of and said that studying enthusiastically a broad range of topics will allow them, when unusual opportunities present themselves, to raise their hands and say, "I can do that." That's how he got to circle the globe.

Had someone told him that "little Jake Garn from Richfield, Utah, will orbit the earth at 25 times the speed of sound," he said he'd have wondered "what they were smoking."

Asked about the president's plan to end the space shuttle program, Garn expressed disbelief. "People don't understand all the spin-off technology that comes from NASA research," he said, adding that the budget is miniscule — eight-tenths of 1 percent of the federal budget — and provides as many as 60,000 highly skilled jobs. Plus, every dollar spent is spent on earth, helping the economy.

Canyons School District Superintendent David Doty said he first heard of the space experiment opportunity, a project of the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program, on Twitter. Fifth through 12th-grade students were invited to propose experiments to fly in low Earth orbit. They were told this fall that a Canyons project would be included. Then students at Canyons district schools formed teams and worked with community and teacher mentors to submit proposals. Finally, 13 projects were narrowed down to four — two from Hillcrest and one each from Jordan and Brighton high schools — by a community panel. Those were forwarded to a review committee in Washington, D.C., which selected this Hillcrest project, titled, "Microgravity's Effects on Morphagens in Common Species."

Utah's other finalists were Weihsuan Li and Emerson Evans of Brighton High, Jack Casdorph and Whitney Peterson of Jordan High, and Ryan Baker, Hillary Fair and Andrew Jo of Hillcrest High. The other projects that will be on the shuttle come from Florida, Connecticut, New York, Texas, Washington, Oregon, North Carolina, Nebraska, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Mexico and Maryland.

e-mail: Lois@desnews.com