More than 61,000 teenagers across the United States and Canada have first-hand experience designing experiments for the International Space Station. Applications are now open for the next round of junior space scientists to take part in the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program.
Why should kids be doing science in space? Modern education is shifting from the traditional lecture-based teaching to team-oriented, experiential learning techniques. Giving kids hands-on experience with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics lets them see how what they learn in their classroom relates to the real world.
SSEP does not target “talented” students already on the scientific fast track. Its community-based approach aims for the broadest impact by enlisting an entire school. Faculty engage all of the students in the process. The students form small teams to develop research proposals that use NanoRacks MixStix. These simple one, two, or three chamber tubes control the mixture of liquids, solids, gasses with little muss or fuss for the busy astronauts.
A local review panel sends the school's top three teams to a conference in Washington, DC, where the students present to a national panel of science and education experts. The winning experiment orbits Earth on the space station. In the meantime all of the school’s students repeat the experiment on the ground as a control.
Such a broad-based, intensive program is surprisingly affordable. The baseline cost to send a student experiment into orbit is only $24,000. More than 130 American and Canadian communities have stepped up to the challenge through a combination of school funding and local fundraising. Over the SSEP’s five-year history 61,150 students wrote 13,617 research proposals of which 176 passed through the expert-review process to get a shot at going into space.
But that doesn’t mean all of the experiments reach orbit. Over 130 students, teachers, and parents gathered on the Virginia coast in 2014 to watch a rocket launch eighteen SSEP projects (and other cargo) to the space station. The Antares rocket exploded as it rose from the launch pad, sending a shockwave that knocked some of the spectators off their feet. Nobody was hurt, but the students’ hard work disappeared in the ball of fire. Within days the SSEP staff along with Nasa and its contractors announced that the students would get another shot. Seventeen of the teams rebuilt their experiments in time for the next SpaceX cargo launch just three weeks later.
The eighteenth experiment made it on a later SpaceX launch… which broke apart in flight. The kids at South Carolina’s Palmetto Academy have not given up. Graduating senior Rachel Lindbergh writing on the DreamUp site explained “Its what we do in the face of failure that defines us – that’s real spaceflight all the time.” Their experiment investigating the formation of tin whiskers on lead-free solder will ride on this week’s SpaceX launch. Third time’s the charm, right?
The next opportunity for communities to send student-designed experiments into orbit is now open. The SSEP’s Mission 11 aligns with the 2016/2017 school year. During the autumn months the students design their research proposals and go through the review process. The final review takes place in December, giving the students a few months to build their experiment for an early 2017 launch into space. Communities outside the United States can apply through the Arthur C. Clarke Institute for Space Education. The deadline to begin the application process is April 29.