US high school student loses two science projects to rocket explosions

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 July, 2015, 6:11am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 July, 2015, 6:11am

Julia Powell hasn't finished high school, but the 15-year-old is suddenly one of the world's leading experts in the difficulty of space flight. Powell has twice helped build science experiments to be sent to the International Space Station, and twice watched her projects get vaporised due to rocket failures.

"I always knew it was hard to launch a rocket," says Powell, a second-year student at Duchesne Academy in Houston. "But I had never thought it was that hard that it would happen to me twice."

On a recent Sunday morning, Powell was driving to nearby Galveston with a friend when she got a call from her dad, who had promised to record the SpaceX launch.

"He told me it had exploded and I thought he was joking," Powell recalls. "So he put me on speaker phone and had me listen to the news. And then I was like, OK, he's not joking, it actually failed again."

Powell has spent almost two years hoping to conduct research in space, and says she won't give up now. After the explosion, she called Kathy Duquesnay, the teacher overseeing the project, to talk about the next step.

"I don't like quitting things," Powell says. "We spent a lot of time on it and it's kind of like, why stop now?"

It all started in Powell's 8th grade year. The Centre for the Advancement of Science in Space granted her science class - taught by Duquesnay - a chance design an experiment for the International Space Station.

Their usual classwork was put on hold. The students brainstormed potential experiments, and whittled them down to what Nasa would approve. Then the students voted and selected a project to test the impact of blue and red LED light on plant growth in space.

I always knew it was hard to launch a rocket. But I had never thought it was that hard that it would happen to me twice.
Julia Powell

Powell was assigned to the plant growth media team to determine what their pea shoots could grow in. They considered water and soil before settling on a gel-like substance.

The class finished the experiment and got back to their usual studies. The project was scheduled to launch the following autumn, October 2014, on an Orbital Sciences rocket in Wallops Island, Virginia.

An excited Powell watched the launch on a TV in her parent's house. But then things went wrong. The rocket blew up shortly after lift-off. Powell learned her first lesson in how tough space flight is.

Powell and the rest of her former classmates got an email from their former teacher asking if they wanted to help rebuild the experiment for a second try. Powell and two other students wanted in. During free time they'd help out. Powell missed a few classes to make deadlines.

The final experiment, rebuilt nearly identical to the first, took up about as much space as the size of two editions of War and Peace stacked on one another.

Powell's project was one of 51 student experiments that NanoRacks, a launch services provider, shepherded on to SpaceX's rocket for Sunday morning's launch. The SpaceX rocket was the third cargo mission to the space station to end in failure since October, and the second in a row. Powell's project wasn't the only one to suffer an unwelcome fate once again. An algae experiment by elementary school students at her school and two projects from nearby Awty International were also on board.

"It's a little disappointing, but there were so many other projects that were on that rocket," Powell said. "Ours was just a school project and compared to some of the others - years of researching and funding that went into some of the other projects - I really feel for the other researchers."

The Washington Post