LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

The Earth is facing some very big problems: warmer oceans, rising carbon dioxide levels, new pollutants in the air and water, and it's going to take some very smart scientists to figure out what to do. But students in the U.S. aren't exactly flocking to programs that would prepare them to tackle these challenges. So NASA is taking to the skies in hopes of luring students into studying the planet. NPR's Jon Hamilton went along for a ride.

JON HAMILTON: A great place to study the Earth is from the air.

Ms. KAMIL ARMAIZ-NOLLA (Student Scientist): Five, four, three, two, one, open.

HAMILTON: These researchers are working in an airborne laboratory, a modified DC-8 flying low over the inland valleys of Central California.

Mr. DANIEL TKACIK (Graduate Student): Ready, close.

HAMILTON: Every minute or so, one of them opens a valve that sends a sample of air from outside the plane into a stainless steel canister the size of an overgrown cocktail shaker.

Unidentified Man: Good. Now you can open it up a little bit more to let the flow…

Ms. ARMAIZ-NOLLA: Oh, okay. I don't want it to drop there.

Mr. TKACIK: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

HAMILTON: The experiment will measure gases from dairy farms 1,000 feet below us. Cows belch up a lot of methane and the process used to prepare their feed can raise levels of ozone, another greenhouse gas. Usually flights like this are reserved for top researchers, but these two scientists are students. Kamil Armaiz-Nolla is 29 and dressed in the flight's unofficial uniform: jeans and a t-shirt. She's been in pretty much constant motion sense the seatbelt sign went off. When Kamil's not checking the weather on a laptop, she's running the air sampler.

(Soundbite of air sampler)

HAMILTON: It helps that she's thin enough to squeeze into the small gap between the equipment and a row of seats. Kamil has a background in chemistry and she's about to finish a masters in environmental management at the Metropolitan University in Puerto Rico.

Ms. ARMAIZ-NOLLA: Right now I am applying to - for a Ph.D in oceanography, and actually chemical oceanography. So I can, you know, apply what I study, but I also can experience new things, especially the ocean, which is my passion.

HAMILTON: Daniel Tkacik grew up in Georgia and has a buzz cut that falls somewhere between edgy and aerospace engineer. He's 23, but Daniel's resume already includes stuff like studying carbon in the salt marshes of Skidaway Island. This fall, Daniel will start a Ph.D. in civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.

But he says he's been intrigued by the Earth's atmosphere since he was a kid.

Mr. TKACIK: You know, my family would be down in the basement during a tornado warning and I would be running around upstairs trying to, you know, look out the window, try to see what I can see, and you know, parents yelling at me.

HAMILTON: Daniel and Kamil are exactly the kind of people NASA hopes to attract to studying our planet. They are highly motivated. They are fascinated by the Earth and troubled by its environmental problems.

Also, since high school, they've been taking all the right courses.

Mr. TKACIK: Calculus, Calculus II, Linear Algebra, Differential Equations, multivariable calculus, electromagnetics, Physics I…

Ms. ARMAIZ-NOLLA: Analytical Chemistry, Analytical Chemistry II, Physical Chemistry, Organic.

HAMILTON: High academic achievement helped them to get on today's flight. The flight is part of NASA's Student Airborne Research Program, an experimental six-week session designed to get young people excited about Earth science. The 29 students in this session have already heard lectures from people including Sherwood Rowland. He won the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for figuring out that CFCs were damaging the Earth's ozone layer. For the past few days, the students have been at NASA's Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, California. Dr. George Seielstad from the University of North Dakota worked with NASA to set up the program, including the in-flight experiments.

Dr. GEORGE SEIELSTAD (University of North Dakota): We're doing real science. This isn't a little practice lab session where you get to see how things would be done someday if you became a scientist. You're going to be a scientist, and we're going to come out with some real results, and the results all impact society.

HAMILTON: In addition to gases from dairy farms, the students are looking at water consumption by cotton and almond plants. That's a big deal in central California, where those crops have been hurt by years of drought.

And the students are using an image sensor to study unusual algae growth in Monterey Bay. So-called algal blooms can kill fish and make shellfish poisonous. The blooms are more common in water contaminated by sewage and agricultural fertilizers.

Dr. SEIELSTAD: So in every case it's beautiful science. But this will help people if we come up with some solutions.

HAMILTON: Seielstad says those solutions are likely to come from a new generation of Earth scientists.

Dr. SEIELSTAD: My generation has done the best science it could and I think we've learned a lot about the Earth. But you're always looking for new ideas.

HAMILTON: And new ideas, he says, often come from people who don't necessarily look like the older generation, or sound like them.

Unidentified Woman: (Spanish spoken)

HAMILTON: A couple of hours into the flight, the students have collected most of the critical air samples and the DC-8 is about to turn toward Monterey Bay for the algae experiment.

There's been a lot of concern about a fog bank hovering over the bay. Fog makes it almost impossible to detect algae blooms. But at the moment, forecasters are predicting clear skies. The algae team, which includes Daniel and Kamil, is pretty pumped up.

Then the pilot hears a couple of small clunks.

Mr. TKACIK: Did you hear the excitement?

HAMILTON: And the students get some bad news.

Mr. TKACIK We hit a small bird in engine number two and there's a little hole, but it's no emergency or anything. We're going to do the cotton field run one more time and basically head back. So we will not be flying over Monterey Bay, which means we have no data from this flight

HAMILTON: You can tell you're on a plane full of scientists when the biggest concern about a hole in the plane is whether it will screw up someone's experiment.

Mr. TKACIK: It sucks. I was - because the clouds - here, let's take a look at this little image right here. The clouds have finally opened up. Everything looks awesome. We would have had so much data. But now we got nothing. That is exactly the real world of science. Not everything works all the time, and you know, you've just got to keep trying sometimes, I don't know.

HAMILTON: By the time we're back on the ground, though, everyone is sounding a lot more optimistic.

Unidentified Man: A big round of applause for the flight crew and the support crew.

(Soundbite of applause)

HAMILTON: Next, the students will go back to the University of California, Irvine, to analyze their data.

Unidentified Woman: Tomorrow's morning checkout is at 11:00 a.m. sharp, so…

HAMILTON: The air sampling team will quantify the methanol and ethanol and ethane coming from dairy farms. This will help show the farm's contribution to global warming and perhaps whether the cows there should go on a low-emissions diet.

Another group will figure out which parts of the cotton fields and almond orchards need more irrigation and which could do with a bit less.

And Daniel and Kamil will try to salvage their algae experiment using data from a flight two days earlier.

Ms. ARMAIZ-NOLLA: This group of techs are going to help us process the data. And then next week it starts, the data analysis and all the hard work.

HAMILTON: There are already hints that this hard work will pay off. A first look at the data suggests that an algae bloom is beginning to form in one corner of Monterey Bay.

Jon Hamilton, NPR News.

WERTHEIMER: To see pictures of the students at work aboard the aircraft and learn more about that program, go to the new npr.org.

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