FishHawk Creek students launch SpaceStation project

Published May 15, 2014

LITHIA — Isabelle Utsler, 11, and Miranda Corbo and Srinidhi Raghavan, both 10, scrambled for the three seats in front of a laptop that was connected to a projector.

"She's calling! She's calling!"

More than 100 fifth-graders at FishHawk Creek Elementary screamed with excitement Tuesday morning in the school's multi-purpose room.

Who was calling? Kennedy Space Center scientist Gioia Massa via Skype, looking to discuss the intricacies of growing romaine lettuce in space.

Utsler, Corbo and Raghavan crafted a project to determine how many seeds germinate in microgravity versus on Earth. It's one of 15 student experiments from across the nation, and the only one from Florida, that will blast off into space and be tested at the International Space Station.

"It was awesome," said FishHawk Creek science teacher Mary Vaughn, who has been working with the girls since September on the project. "The fact that we hooked up with (Massa) is very powerful."

Massa helped launch the Veg-01 experiment, nicknamed "Veggie," at the space station a month ago to see how well plants grow in orbit. She answered questions from the girls about the various ways to germinate the triangular-shaped seeds and prepare them for liftoff, which has been postponed twice and is now scheduled for June 10 at 2 a.m. from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Virginia.

The test is expected to run for approximately six to 14 weeks, during which time the fifth-graders will run a similar experiment on Earth and then travel to the Smithsonian Institution this summer to present their data to scientists.

Utsler recently moved from Virginia and said her friends up North are going to record the launch for her.

"I want to be a fashion designer or an astronaut," she said. "Maybe I can design astronaut suits."

The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program has been taking trials to space since 2010.

Through a $19,500 grant from the Suncoast Credit Union Foundation to the Hillsborough County School District, 11 local schools were able to participate in this National Center for Earth and Space Science Education NanoRacks program. FishHawk Creek emerged as the area winner, beating out finalists from Reddick Elementary School in Wimauma and Kingswood Elementary School in Brandon.

"It's beyond cool," said FishHawk Creek principal Pam Bush. "It gives you goosebumps."

Eric Vician can be reached at