It was a delicate task. NASA astronauts were stranded in space at an unknown location. It was up to a team of experts to find the space ship, calculate the appropriate amount of food and water for the rescue mission, and lead Mission Control back to their Mars base.

As the experts examined the available data, one thing was obvious these experts had the math and science skills necessary to make the mission a success. The "experts" were students in fifth through eighth grade at SS. Peter and Paul, completing an "e-Mission" through the Challenger Learning Center through the Wheeling Jesuit University.

Students began the "Moon, Mars and Beyond!" simulation by learning that the year was 2080. NASA has a permanent research base on both the moon and Mars, which it uses to study stars and planets and search for possible life outside Earth. The students are awaiting a rescue ship at the Mars base, which will pick up supplies to rescue a lost research vessel whose location is unknown. It was up to the students to determine where the lost vessel was located by plotting its known course, calculate the amount of food, water and oxygen needed for the mission, and relay this information with Earth Mission Control.

Leading the effort was a flight director at the Challenger Learning Center, Skyping live with the students from Wheeling, W.Va. She guided the students through each part of the mission, providing details about the lost vessel that would allow them to complete the mission. The e-Mission was made more realistic with footage from retired NASA shuttles; as the food and water was delivered to the "stranded" astronauts, students were treated to video of astronaut Mark Kelly drinking water bubbles in space.

"It was a great experience," said Nola Barilla, an eighth-grade student at SS. Peter and Paul who hopes to have a career in science as a teacher or biochemist. "Not everyone gets to do this. It was exciting."

Fellow eighth-grade student Mason Smith served as a communication specialist during the program, coordinating information from the Learning Center and sharing it with student "space teams," who then used that information to complete mission tasks.

"I waited for information from each space team. The information that they gave to me, I transmitted to Mission Control," said Smith, noting that communication skills in addition to math and science knowledge played an important role in the program.

"This was a math and science lesson," said Tracey Delpero, the school librarian who helped to coordinate the lesson plans students would need to complete the e-Mission. "We prepared with lessons about the planets, and they used their regular math from each grade's curriculum. It fits into the curriculum but was using math in a new way.

"It was a challenge. It was exciting," she added.

The Challenger Learning Center's e-Missions were offered to all schools within the Allentown Diocese. SS. Peter and Paul students will complete a second e-Mission this month, learning more about science as they learn how fires are put out in space. At the end of their Mars e-Mission, they were asked to begin thinking about how this might work would water put out a fire in space? How would you direct extinguishing materials toward a fire with no gravity?

The students will learn this, and more, when they complete the "Fire Scene Investigation" e-Mission next month.