News & Politics

DC Middle-School Students’ Work Launched Into Space

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

The launch of the SpaceX Dragon. Photograph courtesy of NASA.

Tuesday morning at Cape Canaveral, the hard work of students
from all over the country, including several from DC’s own
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

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
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