Student Experiments Reach the International Space Station

Sunday afternoon an Antares rocket soared into the Virginia skies carrying the Cygnus cargo craft to the International Space Station. Most of the mainstream press focused on the professional aspects of the resupply mission - especially the new clothes that won’t smell as bad. A few space media reports - including Universe Today and Space.com - briefly mentioned the amateur role in the launch: primary and secondary school students sent 15 experiments into space.

What does K-12 space science look like?

The students - who attend elementary, middle, and high schools in 12 states - are researching the way microgravity affects materials science, fluid dynamics, and biological processes. I've briefly summarized the 15 experiments and provide links to reports by the schools' local press. (The fact that fewer than half of the schools got press coverage is one of the reasons Small Steps To Space exists)

  • “Affected Efficacy of Sprayed Enamel Coating as a Corrosion Inhibitor” Milton L. Olive Middle School, New York.
    • They will expose iron disks coated in Rust-Oleum to Coca Cola and see how well it resists corrosion compared to control experiments in the classroom.
  • “How does an onion root cell divide in microgravity?” Northland Preparatory Academy, Arizona
    • The review board complemented the sophistication of the students’ proposal. They will compare the root cells in sprouting onion seeds to control experiments on Earth to see if microgravity disrupts DNA replication.
    • The Arizona Daily Sun reported that this project edged out 100 other proposals from students at the school. 
  • “Triops as a Protein Source” Mark West Charter School and Riebli Elementary School, California
    • Triops are freshwater crustaceans known as tadpole shrimp. The experiment will evaluate how well the triops develop in microgravity as a potential astronaut food source.
  • “Growth of Radish Plant in Microgravity” Chavez Prep, Cesar Chavez Public Charter School for Public Policy, Washington, DC
    • The students will see whether sprouting radish seeds have a preferential direction for root and shoot growth. On Earth one goes up and the other goes down, but there is no up or down in space.
  • “How many seeds will germinate in microgravity vs. on Earth?” FishHawk Creek Elementary, Florida
    • The students are looking at lettuce seeds to see whether the vegetable could become a home-grown food source for astronauts.
    • Both the Tampa Bay Times and the Tampa Bay Tribune interviewed the girls who designed this experiment. 
  • “Will microgravity conditions increase the rate of yeast fermentation in honey?” The Academy @ Shawnee, Kentucky
    • The students want to see if the fermentation of honey can produce useful levels of alcohol - for medicinal and scientific purposes.
  • “Core-Shell Micro/Nanodisks: Microencapsulation in Two Dimensions under Microgravity” Murray Hill Middle School, Maryland
    • A mixture of aspirin and gelatin forms microcapsules that slowly dissolve in the stomach. The students will see whether microcapsules formed in microgravity release aspirin at a different rate than microcapsules formed on Earth.
    • Kevin He designed the experiment and told the Baltimore Sun that "Best-case scenario is a new way to make medicine."
  • “The Production of Antibiotics from Bacillus subtilis in Microgravity” Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical School, Massachusetts
    • Astronauts may not always rely on resupply from Earth, so they will need to produce their own drugs. The students will see how well the antibiotic-producing bacteria handles long-term conditions in space. 
  • “If you cut a Dugesia Planarian worm would it grow back in microgravity?” North Attleboro Middle School, Massachusetts
    • Biologists use Dugesia Planaria to study basic processes in life sciences and draw parallels to human biology. These students will study the rate of healing in microgravity.
  • “Oxidation in Space” St. Peter’s School, Missouri
  • “Polyhydroxyalkanoate Production in Zero Gravity” Brookhaven Academy, Mississippi
    • The bacteria Ralstonia eutropha produces a plastic called polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) that’s used in medical implants. Since future scientists might grow or 3D-print their own medical supplies, the students want to see how well the bacteria handle microgravity.
  • “Penicillium Growth Rate in Microgravity” Pennsauken Phifer Middle School, New Jersey
    • Drug companies used to farm the antibiotic penicillin by extracting it from the penicillium mold. The students want to see if future astronauts could make their own antibiotics by using these natural drug factories.
  • “What is the effect of microgravity on mold growth on white bread?” New Explorations into Science, Technology, and Mathematics, New York
    • A piece of white bread may grow mold during the months that the experiment spends in space. The students will compare the rate of mold growth to control experiments on Earth.
  • “Lettuce Growth” Cottage Lane Elementary School, New York
  • “Artificial Ear?” Mendenhall Middle School, North Carolina
    • Jellyfish sense direction using small hairs connected to crystals within their bodies. In space, though, jellyfish lose all sense of direction. The students want to see whether that’s caused by a different rate of crystal growth in microgravity. 

Growing food (and mead), producing medicine, and understanding basic processes in biology and materials science - all subjects of professional research on the International Space Station (maybe not the mead). These students - from grade 5 to grade 12 - designed real science experiments to explore the environment of microgravity just like the professionals, just on a smaller scale. But these aren’t the first students to do real research in space.

SSEP introduces hundreds of thousands of kids to space science

The Student Spaceflight Experiment Program helped 91 student experiments reach space over the past 4 years. But that number is the tip of the iceberg: over 310,000 students in 31 states, the District of Columbia, and the 2 Canadian provinces took part in activities related to the experiments. The extent of the SSEP’s impact comes from the approach it takes.

Many programs that focus on Stem education (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) operate at the individual level. An educator uses the experience gained in a workshop or research project to enrich his or her teaching. The SSEP takes a community-based approach that directly engages as many students as possible. SSEP helps each community, whether a school or an entire school district, organize activities that involve thousands students.

SSEP lets students experience the full scientific process. Professional scientists must compete for resources like access to astronomical observatories or laboratories like the ISS by writing research proposals. Only the best proposals get accepted. Students in each SSEP community form teams that design experiments and then write proposals. The community creates a review board that chooses 3 finalists. These finalists then travel to a student science conference organized by the SSEP. There they present to a National Review Board which chooses the best proposal from each community.

SSEP director Jeff Goldstein told the Tampa Bay Observer: “We don’t refer to these students as kids. They are microgravity researchers. They are asked to do everything professional researchers are asked to do. That flight team designed a real experiment, wrote a real proposal, beat out their colleagues, went through a flight safety review and now they are about to launch. It really is a remarkable achievement.”

SSEP’s approach introduces many students to the scientific process. 6,750 students created 1,344 proposals just for the latest mission. More than 28,000 students proposed research projects to the SSEP over the past 4 years.

Community-wide programs broaden the impact even further by taking a cue from a Nasa tradition: astronauts design the patch worn on their spacesuits as a unique symbol of their mission. The Mission Patch Design Competition lets students of all ages submit mission patch designs. A community panel picks the winning design that rides into space with the experiment. These community-based programs have involved 310,000 students in the 7 SSEP missions that have reached space.

But is this the best use of astronauts’ time?

Unfortunately Nasa hasn't figured out how to squeeze more than 24 hours into each astronaut's day. Part of that time astronauts must eat, sleep, exercise to counter the effects of microgravity, fix leaky pipes, replace burned-out circuits, or do spacewalks. An audit by Nasa's Office of the Inspector General found that the 6-member crew's combined time conducting research is less than 40 hours a week. (Nasa's goal is 35 hours, so that's actually good news) The competition among professional scientists for the astronauts' research time is fierce - the amount of time an experiment consumes is one of the factors Nasa uses to evaluate professional scientists’ proposals.

Fortunately a company called NanoRacks develoepd a way to produce more science using as little of the astronauts’ time as possible. NanoRacks created a standardized, modular set of labware that works on a plug-and-play basis. Astronauts’ involvement may be no more than pressing a button to start the experiment and then days or weeks later pressing another button to stop the experiment.

The students in the SSEP design their experiments using NanoRacks’ MixStix. These have one, two, or three chambers that contain the experiment’s materials. The astronaut bends the MixStix to break the seals between the chambers, mixing the materials, and getting the experiment started. All the astronaut needs to know is when to start the experiment. There may even be experiments - such as the New York students’ research into mold growth - that don’t need the astronaut at all.

There's a catch isn't there?

Yup. Getting into space isn't cheap. The SSEP and NanoRacks do a lot to keep costs down, but communities must raise more than $21,000 to cover the costs of the full program. This isn't just for the cost of launching the experiment into space - an option to send a second experiment only (!!) costs $13,000. It also supports resources provided by the SSEP including curriculum materials, multimedia and social media support.

The SSEP aggressively helps communities raise the money through donations and grants. While some communities get all of the money from school boards or local government, the SSEP has helped 77 communities find the funding they need.

More opportunities for student science... in space!

Last weekend's launch sent SSEP Mission 5 into orbit. That's the seventh mission overall - 2 on the Space Shuttle and 5 on the ISS. The 19 experiments for Mission 6 have already been selected and will go into orbit in the Fall.

SSEP is taking applications for Mission 7 now (the deadline is September 3) for launch in Spring 2015.

Where to get more information

If you want your community to take part in space station research, the SSEP website is the best place to go. Communities in Canada, Japan, European Union or European Space Agency member nations should apply through the Clarke Institute's website. The information is densely packed and structured into two menu systems. You'll need to read through it all, but here are some quick links to get you started: