The SpaceX Dragon capsule that splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on August 26, 2016 was loaded with precious cargo: experimental samples and data fresh from the International Space Station. The designers of the experiments received their space-flown materials shortly after splashdown, and they’ve been studying them for the past few weeks. These experimenters aren’t just professional scientists—many of them are middle and high school students!
Five student teams from Houston-area schools sent experiments to the ISS in the first ever Space Station National Design Challenge. The U.S. National Lab, managed by CASIS, collaborated with several partners on this pilot program. Students worked with CASIS, Texas A&M University, NanoRacks, Infinity Aerospace, and SparkFun Electronics to engineer lights, cameras and sensors that met the unique requirements of the Space Station. Each experiment had to fit into a ten-centimeter cube, about the size of a soda can. Each had to run autonomously, using a microcontroller to turn lights on or off or take pictures at programmed intervals. Another important part of each design was a plan for ground-based control experiments.
When the program started in 2013, six teams participated with students ranging from fifth to twelfth grade. Fifth graders designed experiments to study yeast cells and algae growth. High schoolers designed experiments to study slime mold behavior and the clustering of lipid molecules. One eighth grade team investigated plant growth under lighting conditions that astronauts might use to grow crops aboard spacecraft. Another eighth grade team studied whether a specialized plastic could block the dangerous radiation that astronauts will encounter on missions to Mars.
All six of these teams tackled many challenges in readying their experiments for flight, but their biggest problems occurred on the launch pad. In October 2014, the experiments were loaded into a Cygnus cargo capsule for the Orb-3 resupply mission. Moments after launch, the rocket malfunctioned and exploded, destroying the capsule and everything inside.
As part of the National Design Challenge, students at the all-girls Duchesne Academy designed an algae experiment in 2013, when they were in fourth grade. They were in fifth grade when the experiment was ready for spaceflight — that’s when they made this video. But due to delays and launch failures, the students were in seventh grade when their experiment finally made it to the Space Station!
The students were dismayed, but not defeated. They rebuilt five out of the six experiments in time for their next launch opportunity, the CRS-7 resupply mission in June 2015. This time the spacecraft was a reusable Dragon capsule. Two minutes into flight, the rocket broke apart and the capsule fell into the Atlantic Ocean from a height of 30 miles. The capsule was not recovered; it probably crumpled when it struck the ocean surface.
In July 2016, after a second year of rebuilding and waiting, the five experiments finally made it to the Space Station! In the CRS-9 resupply mission, a Dragon capsule carried the experiments to the ISS and brought them home a month later. Now four of the five student teams are analyzing the materials that returned to Earth. The fifth team could not recover any data from the flash drive that flew with their experiment, probably due to a malfunction outside the students’ control.
The students who designed the plant growth experiment, now juniors at Duchesne Academy of the Sacred Heart, found that their results agreed with their hypotheses: the plants grew better on Earth than in the weightless environment of the Space Station, and regardless of location, the plants grew better in red light than in blue light. “Some of the blue ones didn’t even seem to sprout from the seeds,” observed Eva Van Pelt.
The team was pleased and grateful to see their project reach a conclusion. “We actually got to work on, like, this experiment that would go up to space! It was a big deal,” said Paige Clark. She continued, “When it blew up the first time, we were freshmen… And so it’s cool to see that now, two years later, we’re juniors, and the project finally has come to an end.” Laurie Reid added, “I think it was really cool to see that this became a reality and that we were given this opportunity by CASIS.”
The students learned much more than science and computer programming through their participation in the National Design Challenge. For some, the experience helped shape their identity as future engineers. Reid said she feels motivated to continue her education in computer science, and one of her fellow students is active in the school’s robotics team. Other students don’t want to pursue science careers, but they still expect to apply what they learned in the future. Clark, who wants to be an English teacher, will never forget “having to bounce back each time” after she watched her team’s experiment get destroyed in the Orbital ATK CRS-3 and SpaceX CRS-7 mission failures. Practicing resilience “is something I would want to teach the students,” she said. “Even though something doesn’t work out the first time, you have to keep trying.”
Although the first National Design Challenge was limited to Texas schools, the program is now branching out. The next three challenges are working with schools in Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, and Massachusetts. Some of the new experiments were supposed to launch this November, but that flight has been delayed until 2017 due to a September 1 explosion of a SpaceX rocket on the launch pad.