An unmanned Antares rocket carrying nearly 5,000 pounds of supplies to the International Space Station exploded on Oct. 28, destroying everything aboard.
“It’s hard to describe what it was like other than simply to say it was an event where you’re trying to process what you’re seeing,” Jeff Goldstein told Business Insider. Goldstein is the National Program Director for the Student Spaceflight Experiment Program (SSEP).
One quarter of the cargo’s weight — 1,254 pounds — came from 18 student scientific research projects chosen by the SSEP from a pool of 1,489 proposals.
In partnership with NanoRacks, who operates the only commercial lab in space, and the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE), the SSEP offers students in the US and Canada the opportunity to design an experiment to send to the ISS.
Students of all ages, from grade school up through university, can participate.
The students often form groups of four or five, and sometimes as many as 30, to put together a proposal.
Yesterday, Goldstein was with three of these groups on Wallops Island, Virginia to watch the launch. Moments after lift off, Goldstein recalled:
“There was this enormous fireball and as we’re trying to process this and understand what we’re seeing, the shockwave …hit us,” Goldstein said. They were far enough away that the shockwave from the explosion was not strong enough to knock anyone down, but when it hit them the explosion became real, he said.
This was the sixth series of experiments that SSEP had scheduled for launch to the ISS. The seventh and eighth sets of experiments are already scheduled for launch 167 and 350 days from now, respectively.
So is this it for the students whose projects met a fiery end? Not even close.
“If we said, ‘Oh, it’s gone,’ then we would be doing a terrible disservice,” Goldstein said.
The students will have to re-make their mini-lab experiments, but they will then be loaded onto another spacecraft.
If there’s room on the SpaceX launch scheduled for December 9, the students might not have long to wait.
For Goldstein, finding a new launch is not the hardest part:
“These students [at the launch] were in shock…This was something that was not expected and all of the sudden their experiments were lost, the rocket was lost, and they just saw catastrophic failure. The hard part is to make sure that these students hold onto the appropriate frame of mind,” he said.
In society, he explained, “we don’t teach students that failure is part of life …and it’s important for them to recognise that [it is].”
SSEP has a list of each group’s experiments along with an explanation of what the experiment is and why it’s important to the advancement of science research.
Some of the experiments include:
Four eighth grade students at St. Monica Catholic School (shown to the right), in Kalamazoo, Michigan want to send Dry Lake Fairy shrimp eggs into space. The students hypothesize that if the eggs successfully spawn live shrimp in space, that upon their return to Earth for study, the shrimp will be underdeveloped and unable to swim due to limited muscle strength. Their goals is to further understand muscle loss in humans in space.
Nearly 30 students in sixth and seventh grade at McGowan Park Elementary in British Columbia, Canada, conceived of an experiment to understand how the absence of gravity affects how fluids form crystals in the absence of gravity.
Three sixth grade students from Urban Promise Academy in Oakland, California, want to investigate whether red worms can take food waste and compost it into soil in space like they do on Earth.
Four college students at George Washington University and Georgetown University (shown to the right) aim to investigate whether Chrysanthemum morifolium plants can remove harmful toxins form the air in space. Studies have shown that they have this ability on Earth and the students want to know whether these plants could be used to purify air on long-term space explorations.
Four eight-grade students at Willkinson Middle School in Michigan designed an experiment that will study how iodine tablets affected E. coli in zero gravity, which could purify water on the ISS and other planets in the future if the experiment shows that tablets can kill E. coli bacteria.
“Nobody said that spaceflight is easy,” Goldstein said. “And if explorers felt that way we wouldn’t be where we are [today].”
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