It was a sight that many in the space community will not soon forget: On the evening of Tuesday, Oct. 28, 2014, sightseers, photographers, journalists, and space workers witnessed firsthand the spectacular explosion of an Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares launch vehicle at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) in Wallops Island, Va. The rocket was carrying a Cygnus cargo ship (the Spaceship Deke Slayton) filled with valuable supplies to the International Space Station (ISS).
While many onlookers were stunned by the intensity of the conflagration at Pad 0A, another group would suffer personal heartbreak. A group of around 100 representing the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP), who had synthesized 18 unique experiments from 18 student communities to be performed on the ISS, saw their hard work and dreams go up in flames on the launch pad that evening. Their mission, named Yankee Clipper after Apollo 12’s command module, was aboard the cargo ship sitting on top of the doomed launch vehicle.
Dr. Jeff Goldstein, who is the center director for the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education and the institute director for the Arthur C. Clarke Institute for Space Education (these centers run SSEP respectively in the U.S. and internationally), captured the chaotic scene in a recent SSEP blog post.
“All of us were trying hard to process what just happened, and we were all unaware that the blast wave was moving toward us at the speed of sound. A couple of seconds after we saw the fireball, we were hit with an intense pressure pulse knocking some of us off our feet. Many of the student researchers were in a state of shock, not knowing how to make sense of it. Some were understandably crying. We went from euphoria to despair in a matter of seconds,” he wrote.
According to SSEP, 6,860 students (from fifth grade to college level) had engaged in microgravity experiment designs, with 1,487 flight experiment proposals submitted by student teams. From 54 finalist proposals submitted to Step 2 Review at the National Air and Space Museum (NASM), the final 18 were selected for flight to the ISS. In total, the work of 101 student researchers was aboard the Spaceship Deke Slayton, and this work had now disappeared. The experiments encompassed crystal formation in microgravity, effects on materials, bacteria, organisms, and many other disciplines crucial to our understanding of working and living in space.
The writer F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “There are no second acts in American lives.” However, in his lifetime, Fitzgerald never learned about the tenacity of STEM students and their supporters.
This dark day would soon reveal its lighter side. Dr. Goldstein wrote: “We did not precisely know how we would move forward with Mission 6 and Yankee Clipper, but we were not giving up. And the guidance came exceedingly fast. Less than an hour after the loss of Orb-3, Jeff Manber, Managing Director of our launch services provider NanoRacks, sent me a remarkably reassuring email that they were already working to re-fly the Yankee Clipper experiments on the next available flight to ISS, and asked whether the student flight teams were up for it.
“I told him that my expectation was that everyone to a team was going to re-fly on Yankee Clipper II. We had enormous pride and confidence in these student flight teams. In that moment of failure, we were sure that they would reaffirm their commitment to research on the frontier. That’s what professional microgravity researchers would do, and these remarkable students had delivered on every requirement to date for real spaceflight operations. They had been stepping to the plate as professional researchers all along – and they surely would again. What had happened demonstrated that space exploration is hard, really hard.” In addition, the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), a national partner of SSEP, was also dedicated to not abandoning the mission of Yankee Clipper.
Within a week of the loss of Yankee Clipper, a plan was in place to persevere and fly again. Dr. Goldstein stated: “On November 5, 2014, a week after the loss of Orb-3, NanoRacks officially informed us that we needed to rapidly assess if M6 flight teams were not only up for a re-flight, but if they could rapidly reconstitute their experiments and get them to Johnson Space Center for payload integration by November 21 – which would require than an entirely new experiment payload be in Houston less than one month after the loss of Orb-3. NASA had provided re-manifest of the new Yankee Clipper II payload on Space-X 5, launching from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station [CCAFS] in December – that’s December 2014!”
While the launch of SpaceX’s CRS-5 mission was postponed from its December date (it is scheduled to launch Tuesday, Jan. 6, at 6:20 a.m., from CCAFS’ Launch Complex 40), SSEP and its partners did not fail in their aim. Seventeen of the 18 original experiments will fly aboard SpaceX CRS-5 to the ISS and were delivered to JSC on time. According to Dr. Goldstein, the experiment not flying will be re-flown this spring: “The 18th flight team will be re-flying their experiment with the Mission 7 Odyssey [named after Apollo 13’s command module] payload in Spring 2015 given their research advisers at NASA suggested swapping a component, which required a new Flight Safety Review.”
Dr. Goldstein addressed the nature of adversity in spaceflight, something that has been felt (and overcome) since its genesis in the 1950s and 1960s, and how this experience has enriched students not just in STEM, but in life. “You don’t give up. You get your head back in the game. This is how it’s done in the real world. What message would we send if we say that failure is insurmountable? That is not what SSEP is about, because that is not what exploration on the frontier is all about. You go forth, you push forward. In fact, that’s more than a lesson in STEM research, it’s a lesson for life.”
When contacted about the upcoming mission, Dr. Goldstein simply emphasized: “Nobody wanted to let the student researchers down – NASA, NanoRacks, my organization. In the face of failure we gave these students an opportunity to turn this around, and they did. Very proud of them.” For more information about SSEP, its goals, and its ongoing missions, visit the program’s website.