Local Students Learn Lesson In Scientific Set Backs: Rocket Explosion Destroys Mosquito Egg Experiment

Columbia Middle School eighth graders, Lily Walsh, Kasia Kapustka, Julia Ellis, Gia LaSalle, and Bianca Urbina at the launch of the Orbital Sciences (Orb-3)Antares Rocket and Cygnus Vehicle. Credits: Jim Flakker
Gia LaSalle, Katherine Kapustka, Lilyanna Walsh, Julia Ellis, and Grace Acosta with Jim Flakker (SSEP Local Program Director) and Pam Wilczynski (Columbia Middle School Teacher) Credits: Jim Flakker
Credits: Jim Flakker
Credits: Jim Flakker
    Credits: Jim Flakker

BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - Shock and sadness was felt as the five Columbia Middle School eighth graders along with their families and teachers watched the launch of the rocket, carrying their experiment to the International Space Station, explode shortly after take off in Wallups Island, VA, Tuesday evening.  

Gia LaSalle, Katherine Kapustka, Lilyanna Walsh, Julia Ellis, and Bianca Urbina were the group of students with the winning experiment, as part of the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP). Their experiment, 'Baby Bloodsuckers in Outer Space', was scheduled to launch to the International Space Station aboard Orbital Sciences (Orb-3)Antares Rocket.

The students and their families arrived on Sunday to Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Wallops Island, VA. The students were invited to attend professional mission and science briefings prior to the actual launch on Tuesday.

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The explosion was emotional for everyone. "But honesty, I feel like this is an opportunity for all of us to learn," said Jim Flakker, SSEP Local Program Director. "More importantly, I feel responsible to show them that in a time of great set back and failure -- what we do next is important, and how we respond to it."
Video credits to  Pam Wilczynski (Columbia Middle School Science Teacher). 
Flakker feels obligated to make sure to get the experiment remanifested.

The students, families and teachers were as close to the launch as allowed, approximately one and a half miles from the pad. "It was shocking, we knew immediately the explosion wasn't right," said Flakker.
They could feel the percussion of the explosion -- "it didn't knock us over, but we're not used to hearing something that loud."
They were asked to leave the site immediately, and when they regrouped, the emotions set in of the tragic sadness -- questioning how did this happen? how can it be?
The Antares Rocket Explosion hit media and National News broadcasts, as well as a  NY Times headline, 'Antares Rocket Explosion Leaves Questions and Dead Mosquito Eggs'.
National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE), the organization that created the SSEP, immediately reached out advising the group of encouraging news - they were not going to give up. Telling the students, "Failures happen, and in the case of failure, we are going to pull together and get the experiment to the space station," recalled Flakker.  
The students were reassured by the sense of dedication from the scientists and engineers involved. These professionals set out goals, and they will take the necessary steps to accomplish these goals.
"This is a set back," said Flakker. "Once the focus was shifted on moving forward, the group worked through their emotions and handled it well."
"We had no doubt that we were a strong cohesive group. I've worked with these girls since February -- and with any other set back, we could work through this," said Pam Wilczynski, Columbia Middle School Science Teacher."We needed to deal with what we saw and the shock and devastation of that. Given the opportunity, we would rise up and preservere. When you're faced with failure, make that into a learning experience and turn it into an accomplishment."
Wilczynski enjoyed working with all 100 of her students, who worked in groups to present their proposals. "Trying to motivate 12-year-olds can be challenging. The students were so involved and so interested in putting together this scientific proposal -- that's what scientists do -- to me, that was the best part."
"Looking at the project as a whole, what I'm most impressed with is the ability for all of the students to come back and fix things that weren't working properly," said Flakker. "Their resilience and working through problems and making corrections and fixing things. That has been the story all along. This goes right along with that. Here we go -- here's something we need to fix and make better."
"The launch was emotional, but as long as we put it as another step along the way, it is fine. They [the students] will look back at it and say, 'it was pretty amazing'," said Flakker.
"We'll get the materials and set the experiment into the tube that they give us. It will be a lot more work for the girls, but they are very positive going into this next stage," said Wilczynski.
Nanoracks, LLC, the company that packages and ships for NASA, has been in touch with Flakker regarding the timing to turn around another experiment. Clark University is immediately able to supply the Aedesalbopictus mosquito eggs. "We are ready to go," said Flakker.  
It's possible the experiment could remanifest and launch as early as mid-December.

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