PLAQUEMINE — For three fifth-grade students at the Iberville Math, Science and Arts Academy-West, the explosion Oct. 28 of the Antares rocket bound for the International Space Station was more than headline news — it had a personal significance.
On board the unmanned rocket — and destroyed in the explosion — was a clear plastic tube clamped into sections that three girls had filled with water, soil and soybean seeds to be mingled into a growing medium by astronauts on the International Space Station.
The girls’ work was one of 18 experiments by school students from the United States and Canada that earned a spot onboard the Antares supply rocket.
But there will be a second chance for the young scientists on the next Antares flight that’s expected in the near future.
“I felt bad because these people put all of their time and effort into it, and it just blew up!” said Elizabeth Irwin, 10, a fifth-grader at the MSA Academy-West, who saw the explosion of the rocket on TV moments after liftoff on Wallops Island, Virginia. And as one of the trio of student scientists, she watched her project go up in flames.
“I felt happy we were going to get to redo the experiment. I just always wanted to be involved with something in space,” said Irwin, who began working on the experiment for the Antares last year with fellow students Nicole Warner and Lilah Morgan, both 10.
The girls’ goal with their space-bound experiment was to learn how and in what direction roots grow in space. Their experiment is part of a program called the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program, one of the programs of the National Center for Earth and Science Education.
Loren McIntyre, the former director of the Plaquemine magnet school’s aerospace science, robotics and engineering lab, learned about the experiments program during the 2013 winter and went after it for her students.
Science, technology, engineering and math education “is definitely the future,” said McIntyre, who’s now a full-time doctoral student in human resource education at LSU, but has continued to keep in touch with the students working on the Antares project.
“We’re developing our students for professions we don’t even know exist,” McIntyre said.
Fourth-grade science teacher Mallory Olivier also is involved in the science project.
Student teams at MSA Academy-West sent formal research proposals on science experiments to a review board at the Smithsonian Institute, and the proposal by Elizabeth, Nicole and Lilah was chosen,
There was a price tag for participation.
“This is not funded by NASA,” McIntyre said.
The Antares rocket that brings supplies to the two Americans, three Russians and one German on the space station is a commercial rocket.
“To send something into space is outrageously expensive. It’s typically done by the ounce,” McIntyre said.
The cost of sending Elizabeth, Nicole and Lilah’s experiment to the space station came to $24,000.
The Louisiana Space Consortium, an LSU-based chapter of the National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program, pledged half of that amount, which was matched by the Iberville Parish School Board, McIntyre said.
“We’ve received a lot of support,” McIntyre said of the students’ work.
McIntyre said she’s learned that when the next supply ship launches, which she believes may be as soon as December, all of the original student projects redone for the flight will be sent into space at no charge.
“Some companies have stepped up” to finance that, she said.
Once the school’s proposal was chosen and the funding was in place, it was time last month for the students to create and send in their experiment for the Antares flight, and they had help from the experts.
“They held our hands, step-by-step,” McIntyre said of scientists associated with the program. “When it was time to load the experiment tube, (the students) actually video-conferenced with an aerospace engineer.”
As teacher Olivier describes it, the students, using supplies sent by the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program, capped one end of the tube, filled the tube a third of the way with dirt, clamped that portion, then added the soybean seeds and another clamp, filled the rest with water and capped the other end of the tube.
“We were hoping to find out how would its roots grow down” in space, Nicole said.
“I was pretty shocked when I watched the explosion, but the experiment was an amazing experience,” Lilah said.
“As time goes on, (scientists) are looking at the possibility of having a space station permanently … on a different planet,” McIntyre said. “In order to inhabit any other environment besides Earth, how are they going to obtain their food, how are they going to grow food with a lack of water, oxygen and gravity?”
The students’ experiment took up the issue of gravity, she said.
Also onboard will be mission patches created by Bryan Lewis and Tyrin McCoy, students of MSA Academy-West art teacher Robin Bickham.
McIntyre said that teachers are using last month’s explosion of the Antares rocket, the fifth such supply rocket, as a “teachable moment.”
“The reality of space exploration is that things don’t always go as planned. It’s what we do in the face of failure that defines us,” she said.