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Hillsborough students' science experiment is go for launch into space

From left, students Casey Utsler, Karinna Crespo and Chandrika Ganduri in front of their old school, FishHawk Creek Elementary School. While they attended the school, they designed a science experiment that is set to be launched into space on Friday onboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. This is their second attempt to get their experiment into space. The first experiment was lost in a rocket explosion in June 2015. [LOREN ELLIOTT   |   Times]
From left, students Casey Utsler, Karinna Crespo and Chandrika Ganduri in front of their old school, FishHawk Creek Elementary School. While they attended the school, they designed a science experiment that is set to be launched into space on Friday onboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. This is their second attempt to get their experiment into space. The first experiment was lost in a rocket explosion in June 2015. [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times]
Published Apr. 8, 2016

LITHIA — Three Fishhawk Creek Elementary School students watched nine months of scientific work go up in flames last summer when an unmanned rocket carrying their experiment into space exploded less than three minutes after launch.

"I could not stop crying," said Karinna Crespo, 12, now a sixth-grader at Mulrennan Middle School in Valrico. "I was upset because I was thinking we had all spend so much time on this project and we didn't know if we'd have time to do it again."

But they did rebuild their project, and now they'll get a do-over today.

Their experiment will ride a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket set to launch at 4:43 p.m. from Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral.

The Fishhawk Creek Elementary experiment, designed by Karinna and former classmates Chandrika Gandrui, 12, and Casey Utsler, 11, will test how zero gravity affects cottonseed growth. That research could be useful when planning a manned mission to Mars, the students said, because astronauts might have to cultivate their own crops.

SpaceX, a Los Angeles commercial space company founded by inventor Elon Musk, has a lot riding on today's launch. It strengthened the strut in the fuel tank that failed June 28, 2015, in preparation for the launch to the International Space Station.

If the launch is successful, the rocket will propel a Dragon cargo capsule that is set to dock with the space station Sunday morning. The small, 6-inch tube that houses the experiment is set to return in May, when the Dragon capsule is expected to return to Earth.

The team hopes their experiment will finally reach space. But if the rocket suffers another "catastrophic failure," as the girls call what happened in June, they believe they're better prepared for the disappointment.

"We probably won't be as upset as we were the last time," said Chandrika, now a sixth-grader at Williams Middle Magnet School.

"The more failures we have," Karinna added, "the longer we get to do the experiment."

That's because the students are guaranteed to get their experiment into space — no matter how many times it takes.

Hillsborough County is one of 25 communities flying an experiment aboard the SpaceX rocket through Student Spaceflight Experiments Program, or SSEP, which attempts to improve interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) by providing students grades five through college access to space for their experiments.

To fly with SSEP, each school or school district must first teach a microgravity curriculum, program director Jeff Goldstein said. Then students break into small groups and write proposals for experiments they're interested in. Hillsborough administrators sent the top three proposals out of 49 to SSEP, which selected the cottonseed experiment.

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Then each community must come up with its own funding for those experiments. The cottonseed experiment cost roughly $21,500.

"Every community essentially gets its own space program," Goldstein said. "They're doing exactly the same thing that real scientists and researchers to do secure limited research assets."

"It's a great opportunity for 10 and 11 year olds," said Mary Vaughn, a science academic coach with the Hillsborough County School District and local project manager for SSEP. "Not something the normal person would do."

Here's how the cottonseed experiment works: The plastic tube that houses the experiment is segmented by clamps into three chambers. The two outside chambers have cottonseeds wrapped in felt; the middle chamber has water.

Within two or three days of arrival, an astronaut will expose one group of cottonseeds to water under weightless conditions. The other group of seeds won't be exposed to water until two weeks before the experiment returns to Earth in May.

Then the team will compare that seed growth to the growth of seeds under Earth's gravity, which will function as the control experiment.

The students' hypothesis? That about half the seeds will germinate, or start to grow, the students said. They're also interested in whether the roots will grow down or in all different directions. Roots grow downward on Earth because of gravity.

The cottonseed experiment won't be the first Hillsborough County experiment to reach the space station. The students drew their inspiration from a similar experiment in 2014, designed by another Fishhawk Creek team that included Casey's older sister, Isabelle Utsler, which measured how low gravity affects lettuce seed growth. In that experiment, the seeds germinated.

"We decided on cotton because it has lots of different uses," Chandrika said.

"If you go to Mars you can never come back," said Casey, 11, now a sixth-grader at Randall Middle School. "You can't wear the same clothes forever."

Another Hillsborough school has a third experiment ready to fly aboard an upcoming SpaceX rocket launch. That experiment, designed by a team of fifth-graders from Mabry Elementary School in Tampa, will test the rate of quinoa seed germination.

No matter what happens with today's launch, no matter how long it takes to get their experiment into space, the students said they're proud of their work

"When people say what's the biggest accomplishment of your life," Chandrika said, "I say SSEP."

Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or jsolomon@tampabay.com. Follow @josh_solomon15.

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