Students watch as experiments turn to dust in rocket explosion

WASHINGTON – Local college students attending the ill-fated Wallops Island, Virginia, rocket launch initially were delighted their science experiment had earned a coveted space in the cargo hold.

But when the Orbital Sciences Corporation mission to the International Space Station ended in an explosive fireball, the student’s emotional roller coaster ride began. Joy turned to horror that transformed to relief that finally blossomed into hopeful expectation.

“Immediately afterwards our main concern was the safety of people,” says Megan Kemble, assistant director of NASA’s District of Columbia Space Grant Consortium.

In a video of the launch captured by program manager Eric Day, people can be heard screaming in horror. “Oh, my God,” one person wails, as the rocket explodes seconds after liftoff.

Kemble and Day attended the launch with four George Washington and Georgetown university students whose science experiment proposal won a national competition. When the group learned no one had been hurt in the explosion, Kemble says spirits were lifted.

“Everything can be replaced. People can’t be replaced. That was huge for us,” Kemble says.

The mood became even lighter when the company in charge of the students’ experiment reached out to say it would provide new free experiment kits the students could send to orbit on a future flight.

“Nothing’s going to stop us,” Kemble exclaims.

The students’ research could eventually help with long term space missions such as trips to Mars. The proposed experiment would be executed by astronauts on the International Space Station following instructions from the students.

The experiment specifically would test the growth of chrysanthemums from seeds while in micro gravity. In a future that includes long distance space travel, plants could possibly be used both for food and to improve air quality.

Now that the shock of the explosion at Wallops Island has eased a bit, Kemble says the students are eager to move forward with their plans.

“We don’t see this as a setback. We see this as a great learning experience. We’re excited to learn from it and to try again.”

NASA runs a Space Grant Consortium in all 50 states, D.C. and Puerto Rico to support science, technology, engineering and math education.

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