Teen research projects lost in space

The unique microgravity environment in space changes the way fluids behave, organisms grow, and many other physical processes. Nasa has a long history of supporting student research in space. Over 30 student experiments were destroyed in last week's SpaceX accident. Credit: Nasa

After the explosion of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket last week, media across the country focused on the teenagers who lost their science projects in the accident. For many of them this was their second rocket explosion - last October’s explosion of the Orbital ATK Antares rocket destroyed the students’ original experiments. But failure won’t get in the students’ way - Nasa and its partners have committed to getting the students’ research into space.

The SpaceX launch was the seventh mission to the International Space Station for the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP). An individual school or an entire school district that joins the SSEP commits to a program that involves as many kids as possible. Student teams submit research proposals to a series of review panels which pick the best proposal from each community to send into space. At the same time the community’s primary school students propose mission patch designs. At the end of the project, hundreds or thousands of kids will have participated in space exploration. Since the SSEP’s first mission in 2010, almost 46,000 kids have created over 10,000 research proposals, designed almost 32,000 mission patches, and sent 113 experiments into space.

The Center for Advancement of Science in Space also sponsors student research on the space station through its National Design Challenge. Rather than working at the community level, the NDC works with select teachers. It also uses larger-scale laboratory equipment to allow for more sophisticated research projects. The SpaceX launch was the first for the NDC pilot program: three schools from Denver, Colorado, and two schools from Houston, Texas, had their research projects on board.

Across all of the post-explosion media reports, the kids have taken the bad news well. They all seem to understand that setbacks happen in science - and space exploration. One of the best reactions came from 15-year old Texan Julia Powell. Her team’s project was going to study plant growth in a CubeSat-sized enclosure as part of the NDC. Powell told the Washington Post:

We spent a lot of time on it and it’s kind of like, why stop now? Ours was just a school project and compared to some of the others — years of researching and funding that went into some of the other projects — I really feel for the other researchers.

Denver-area teens had also worked hard to get their experiment ready for the launch. Days before the accident, The Daily Camera interviewed three rising seniors who even tested their research on one of Nasa’s zerog airplanes. After the accident, student Karl Painter told the Denver Post:

…we all looked at it with a silver lining — now we have a chance to go back and redesign things and make it better.

Even the teachers took the accident in stride. Charity Trojanowski with Damien High School had a very Californian take on the whole experiment. “It is a huge bummer for them,” she told NBC Los Angeles, “but at the same time being a part of this experience has been exciting for them.” One reason they can be so optimistic is that Nasa has already committed to getting the students’ research into space. Many of the schools that lost their research in the October accident got to see their projects reach space on the next supply launch. As Michael Suffredini, Manager of Nasa's Space Station Program Office, said at the post-accident briefing:

We’ll help them get back online. We’ll help them get their hardware built again. And we’ll get them to orbit, we’ll do their experiments, and hopefully this will be a positive lesson for them in the end.

For a complete description of the students’ experiments, take a look at the SSEP Mission 7 page and the SpaceX press kit (PDF). Check out these links for reports from the students' communities: