Scientific research sometimes resembles a roller-coaster ride of highs and lows, success and failure. Students sending investigations on Mission 6 to the International Space Station learned this firsthand.
After a rigorous selection process and months of preparation, 42 students were set for the exciting experience of watching the October launch of their research in person from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. That excitement faded when Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket, which was set to deliver the cargo, suffered an anomaly during ascent. All supplies and research aboard, including the student investigations, were lost.
Within a matter of days, though, the students’ spirits were headed back up as the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) and its supporters worked quickly to put their experiments on the next launch.
“Failure happens in science and what we do in the face of that failure defines who we are,” said Jeff Goldstein, Ph.D., director of the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE), which oversees SSEP in partnership with NanoRacks, LLC and, for international participation, the Arthur C. Clarke Institute for Space Education. “NASA and NanoRacks moved mountains to get us on the next launch, SpaceX CRS-5. We faced an insanely tight turnaround, but all the student teams stepped up to the plate.”
This unplanned lesson in real-world science fits right in with SSEP’s goal of immersing and engaging students and their teachers in conducting authentic space science just like the professionals.
The students immediately began re-creating their investigations without knowing for sure whether they would have a place on the next resupply ship. Once that confirmation came, materials would be due in Houston by November 21. Support came from every quarter, including NASA, NanoRacks, NCESSE, and even the Canadian government. Canadian officials who knew that one of the student investigations came from British Columbia asked the Canadian Space Agency to do whatever it could to help.
“The students were pretty shocked and were asking: what now?” says Paul Hembling, principal of Bert Edwards Science & Technology School in Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada, where sixth and seventh graders designed an experiment examining crystal growth. “My answer was that I was almost 100 percent sure we’d get re-launched. There was some anxiety as we waited for an answer, but that came in under 24 hours, which is phenomenal.”
Initially, a total of 1,487 proposals involving 6,860 students in grades 5 through 15 were submitted for Mission 6, with 54 named as finalists and 18 selected to fly as part of NanoRacks-National Center for Earth and Space Science Education-Yankee Clipper (NanoRacks-NCESSE-Yankee Clipper). After the Antares loss, 17 teams submitted reconstituted experiments. One team decided to make an improvement, suggested by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, requiring a change in one of the materials inside their NanoRacks mini lab. A flight safety check for the new material could not be achieved within the tight timeframe, so that experiment will fly with the next SSEP mission in late spring 2015.
The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), manager of the U.S. National Laboratory on the space station, is a national sponsor for SSEP and funded nine of the Yankee Clipper investigations. Additionally, CASIS is committed to re-flying six student experiments from its National Design Challenge program that were lost in the Antares accident.
Typically, it takes anywhere from six to 18 months or more between selection of a scientific investigation for flight and actual launch. This fast turnaround was possible because the student investigations had already been through the process. The only hurdle, besides re-creating the investigations in record time, was making sure they would fit into SpaceX’s fifth commercial resupply mission.
“We did have to make a quick assessment to be sure SpaceX CRS-5 could accommodate the size and weight of the investigations,” says Camille Alleyne, Ed.D., space station assistant program scientist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Delaying would have been a missed opportunity.
In addition to the Kamloops crystal growth, other SSEP investigations scheduled for the next launch include mosquito larvae development by seventh graders in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey and milk expiration in microgravity conducted by middle school students in Walterboro, South Carolina. For all of the students, it’s been a roller-coaster ride they’ll never forget.