These kids watched their science project disappear in the Antares rocket explosion

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Marco Werman: Final moments there before a dramatic explosion, a special space delivery gone wrong on the Virginia coast. As you probably know, an unmanned supply rocket bound for the International Space Station exploded just a few seconds after liftoff. The explosion was bad news for NASA obviously, and for the contractor, Orbital Sciences Corporation, which launched the rocket. The rocket carried some 5,000 pounds of experiments and equipment, so those are gone. But so are the hopes and dreams of a group of Canadian 8th-graders. You see, on board the rocket was a student project from McGowan Park Elementary School in Kamloops, British Columbia. Sharmane Baerg is a teacher there. Her students were the ones who had created the experiment. Ms. Baerg, tough day for the kids. What was the experiment you had onboard the rocket? What were you hoping to learn?


Sharmane Baerg: The experiment that we designed had to do with finding out how crystals grow in space, to see how the microgravity environment affected the formation of the crystals, to see if they would be larger, more perfect or less flaws in them than the ones that would form in the same conditions but with gravity on Earth.


Werman: Right, and obviously you can only do that up in space, in orbit. It’s fairly complex stuff, to my ears anyway. How long has this been in the planning?


Baerg: This started being worked on last year. We had talked about the possibilities of doing a project to go into space, but I didn’t get the final details in terms of what the parameters of the project would be. This project that was sent up was actually kind of inspired, interestingly, by some previous science that I had done when we had talked about chemical changes and chemical reactions, when two solutions come together and make a solid. The kids, that kind of blew their minds a little bit, that two liquids could come together and make a solid with no freezing involved or anything else, so that intrigued the interest of a group of students and they chose to make that their topic.


Werman: This is a very weird question, but did you ever see pictures of the actual experiment, like it seated on some shelf on the rocket? Space is a real premium, how much space did this experiment take up?


Baerg: It’s called a shoebox experiment. At first when I told the kids that, they had big ideas. “A shoebox, you could do a lot in a shoebox.” The actual laboratory that we had to use was just a little thicker than a pencil, it was like a tube, and everything had to fit inside. So that took a whole lot of rethinking in terms of how -- you’ve got this big idea, how are you going to get it to work in that little container?


Werman: Clearly a big deal for the kids. There was even a little party yesterday with a homemade cake shaped like a rocket and you were there with the kids to watch the liftoff. Then we know what happened. How did they react when the rocket blew up?


Baerg: Well, if I could just get back to the party just for a moment before I talk about our reaction, that was actually take two because on Monday it was supposed to launch. It was supposed to launch earlier in October, but they couldn’t launch with the hurricane weather, so it got postponed until monday. Then on monday, we were all gathered together; again, we were having a launch party, we had the rocket cake, we had the rocket juice -- the rocket fuel punch that we were going to toast with and everything, and they were literally, in the last two minutes and all of a sudden they go “Due to an unforeseen obstacle, this mission is now scrapped.” We’re like “Unforeseen obstacle?” So then we went on the actual news feed or whatever -- it turns out there was a sailboat in the restricted water area. So we were like “Okay”¦” Then they said “We will launch tomorrow.” So we moved the party to yesterday. So we’re all there -- one young man wasn’t there because he had a dentist appointment, and then we’re watching, we’re counting down with great enthusiasm, and then it takes off and we’re all cheering and yelling. Then all of a sudden, we hear the narrator say “The rocket is operating at 108%.” We look -- we’re like “108%? Is that good? I don’t know if that’s good -- “ and all of a sudden it explodes. It exploded and we’re like “Oh, that wasn’t good.”


Werman: Yeah, 108% I guess is not good. What happens now? Is there a teachable science moment here?


Baerg: Well, there is. The reality is that anything to do with space is dangerous. Sending people to space, sending materials to space, it’s both costly and risky. There are lots of things that can go wrong. Especially with rockets, you’re dealing with very flammable materials that can explode. It’s actually pretty amazing when you look back over the history of space that we have been as successful as we have been. We’ve been very lucky truthfully, given all the dangers that are around it.


Werman: Sharmane Baerg, a teacher at McGowan Park Elementary School in Kamloops, British Columbia. Tell your students not to give up, because science failures are still successes if you can learn from them. Thanks so much for your time.


Baerg: You’re welcome.