DC Middle-School Students’ Work Launched Into Space

A science project created by eighth-graders boarded the International Space Station today.

By: Nicholas Hunt

Tuesday morning at Cape Canaveral, the hard work of students from all over the country, including several from DC’s own Stuart-Hobson Middle School, was launched into space.

Student-designed science projects from 12 communities across the country are currently in low-Earth orbit onboard a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft as part of the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP). More than 779 proposals were submitted to the program, and the students at Stuart-Hobson alone wrote more than 30 proposals and submitted three. One finalist was chosen from each community for what is, for other reasons, a historic flight.

This is the first time a commercial space vehicle designed and built by a private company has been allowed to dock at the International Space Station. With the shuttle retired and NASA focusing on projects outside low-Earth orbit, resupplying the ISS is being left to the private sector.

The Dragon, and the Falcon 9 rocket that launched it into space, are both being put through their paces. Though they are at the front of the new “commercial space race,” SpaceX and its founder, Elon Musk, who made his fortune as a cofounder of PayPal, are still relatively new to the game. In fact, the launch was originally scheduled for last Saturday before being scrubbed in the very last seconds before liftoff, due to engine five’s combustion chamber being slightly over pressure.

Anthonette Pena, a teacher at Staurt-Hobson who helped the students with the project, was there representing the school as the countdown clock struck zero and nothing happened.

“We just had to use it as a teachable moment. I don’t think the kids really knew the meaning of it because they kept calling it a shuttle launch. They didn’t know.” says Pena. But once they explained that the students’ experiment was part of flight that could change the course of space exploration, the students became even more excited.

“Every day it was just, ‘Did it launch, did it launch, did it launch?’” says Pena.

Finally Tuesday at 3:44 AM, the rocket, and the Stuart-Hobson middle school students’ hard work, took off. Ten minutes later they both were in orbit.

Stuart-Hobson’s winning proposal was created by three 8th-grade girls who wanted to see what happens to the hay bacillus bacteria’s ability to break down human waste (thankfully simulated onboard the spacecraft by egg whites) in microgravity compared with an earthbound septic tank. The hope is it could help in the future with recycling waste during long space voyages.

“The experiments will be activated next week,” says Dr. Harri Vanhala, SSEP’s national program manager. “The students are all really excited, not only to have their experiments in space, but also that the astronauts are going to be the ones actually handling it.”

Today the Dragon docked with the single most expensive object ever built, and will remain there for about a week. SpaceX is now NASA’s first private delivery contractor, and is scheduled to make 12 more resupply launches to the station over five years.