If all goes according to plan, at 8:34 p.m. on October 7 a small group of East Lyme Middle School students will be at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida watching the launch of the SpaceX CRS-1 Mission to the International Space Station (ISS).
On board is an experiment designed by sixth graders Noah Barnhart, Nick Hyde, Brandon Hall, and Makaih Olawale that will be conducted by scientists aboard the International Space Station.
Could this be any more exicting for a 6th grader?
Actually, it could. While at Cape Canaveral, students will be able to tour NASA's original space center and they are also looking forward to lunch with an astronaut! For a man, this is undoubtedly more than one small step but for these 10- and 11-year-olds, it's one giant leap into space that has them boldly going where few 6th graders have gone before!
What makes this venture even more noteworthy is that the rocket ship, Dragon, (owned by Space Explorations Technologies Corp., a private contractor hired by NASA to fill in the gap left since the Space Shuttle program ended), will be making the first of 12 contracted resupply flights to ISS since its history-making launch on May 25.
The ship will be filled with about 1,000 pounds of supplies including critical materials to support the 166 investigations planned for the station's Expedition 33 crew. The ship's payload will include 63 new investigations, including East Lyme Middle School's experiment.
A Costly Enterprise
The first Dragon flight launched by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. included 12 experiments from schools across the country but it's not easy to become one of them.
Although the program is open to any school district, the $20,000 cost of the flight and of space aboard the ISS is prohibitive for many. Thanks to lots of community support, East Lyme Middle School was able to enter the competition that resulted in the students' experiment being flown into space.
"At first the 6th grade science teachers were somewhat skeptical of the cost, because it’s so significant, but the value that we saw in the actual learning and excitement from the kids made it all worthwhile," said Glenn PenkoffLidbeck, East Lyme Middle School's 6th grade science teacher. "It’s very motivating not only for the kids that won but for all the kids that participated. You never saw so many kids coming in to work on their project after school. I’ve had students asking why we aren’t doing it again this year."
The answer, of course, is simple math.
"The price tag is $20,000, which we raised through donations and matching grants through a few area businesses. We raised the fee in only about three weeks' time—we have a very supportive community," PenkoffLidbeck added. "That basically is purchasing a research slot on the space station, which is what a private company or research facility would do."
This is not something the school can afford to do every year, obviously, but PenkoffLidbeck said he'd like to see students try it again, perhaps once every two years.
The Great Experiment
The East Lyme Middle School experiment was one of 11 entries submitted nationwide but the entire 6th grade at East Lyme Middle School set about coming up with an experiments that would be appropiate for the space project.
"It’s been really enjoyable to see the excitement in the kids and in the greater community," said PenkoffLidbeck. "A number of kids have parents who are in the sciences who acted as mentors or sources for the kids' research. They got to see how you network in order to find out answers. That happened quite a bit in the research. We spent about 5 or 6 weeks on their projects in the spring, so that was neat. The kids researched the topic and came up with a plan that was judged by a panel in Washignton, D.C."
The winning experiment aims to find out whether food mold is harder to destroy in the zero-gravity atmosphere of space. The entire experiment is contained in one Teflon tube that holds mold spores. Inside the test tube are two ampoules, one that contains malt broth that encourages the mold to grow and another that contains hydrogen peroxide, which should kill it. To start the experiment, all the scientist has to do is crack the tube like a glow stick to mix the two.
"We had to put together the experiment and send it to NanoRacks, LLC, to design the mini laboratory," PenkoffLidbeck explained.
On Earth, hydrogen peroxide kills mold. Whether it does that in space is another matter. Previous experiments have shown that in a zero-gravity environment, bacteria is particularly virulent and much higher levels of antibiotics are needed to kill it. The East Lyme Middle School experiment aims to find out whether the same is true for mold that grows on food when exposed to hydrogen peroxide.
Students at East Lyme Middle School will be conducting the control experiment, by replicating the same experiment here on Earth. The test tube aboard the ISS will be flown back to Earth about six weeks later and shipped to the school so students can compare and analyze the results and come up with a conclusion.
They will then present their findings to a panel of scientific experts at the Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. on July 4, 2013, and publish their results.
"The process is meant to mirror the process the science community goes through," said PenkoffLidbeck.
"To encourage greater involvement we had contests open to the entire school district to put together patches, the design of which would be sent up [into space], said Penkofflibeck. "There were two different contests, one open to East Lyme Middle School and one open to the district."
The winning art, which includes a design from East Lyme Middle School and one winner from the elementary schools, was converted via photoshop into a vibrant cloth patch that will accompany the experiment into space.
The entire East Lyme community was fully onboard with fundraising. The school held its final fundraiser, a raffle last weekend with prizes donated by local businesses, which raised $6,000 to help pay for the cost of the air fares to Florida. Tri-Town Market in East Lyme has also been selling "rocket ships" to customers who want to sponsor students on their flight to Cape Canaveral.
The air fares were the one cost that no one could predict, said Penkofflibeck. The original launch date was set for September 24. Students and their families bought tickets in the spring but the air fares have changed since then.
As the students, their families, and faculty have now booked a five-day trip to Florida, they are all hoping that the launch will take place as scheduled, or at least on the rain date which is set for the following day on October 8.