About an hour and a half before the launch of the Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Antares rocket and Cygnus cargo spacecraft at 6:22 p.m. on 28 October, Jeff Goldstein arrived at his vantage point on Arbuckle Neck Road in Assawoman, Va. It was just 1.5 miles from launchpad 0A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. Goldstein, director of the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE) had come with about 35 elementary school through college students, as well as some parents, teachers, and school administrators, to watch the liftoff that would deliver the students’ microgravity experiments to the International Space Station (ISS).
With the crescent moon hanging in the sky, the sun setting, and the launchpad flooded in white light, the excited crowd listened, courtesy of NASA, to the audio output from mission control. They counted in unison from T minus 10 seconds to launch, Goldstein recalled.
However, when the rocket exploded 6 seconds after liftoff, their euphoria fizzled. The students, who recognize that they are participants in the dawn of the commercial spaceflight era, learned firsthand that space is a tough environment to operate in.
The payload for the unmanned ISS resupply mission included equipment and food for the astronauts as well as research projects. Among the projects were the Meteor Composition Determination investigation to learn about meteoroid dust, a “Drain Brain” human health study to understand blood flow in space, and a set of projects that are part of NCESSE’s Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) initiative. SSEP’s “Yankee Clipper” suite of experiments included 18 microgravity mini-laboratory projects designed by teams of students on topics ranging from crystal formation to milk in gravity to the effects of microgravity on seeds and on composting.
Since NCESSE’s inception in 2010, nearly 49,000 students from 778 U.S. schools have been involved with the initiative, which includes a formal research competition to help prepare the next generation of scientists to be “job-force ready,” Goldstein explained. Working with commercial launch service provider NanoRacks, LLC, SSEP experiments have flown onboard seven missions to ISS. Everything had gone smoothly until the late October launch attempt.
“I’m trying to turn this into a very powerful teachable moment,” Goldstein said, noting that science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) curricula should include authentic immersive experiences in research. “We promised real spaceflight in this program. This is not a fluffy simulation. This is real spaceflight, but we didn’t expect this.”
“Failure is part of the equation,” he said. “It’s really important for students to understand that failures are the guideposts on the side of the road to success. And how they respond to failure is a characterization of what they are made of. I’m seeing that they are ready to step to the plate again.”
Goldstein said that all of the student projects can be reconstituted within a month, if needed, and that NanoRacks is looking into when there might be another opportunity to fly the experiments.
—Randy Showstack, Staff Writer