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Hillsborough students watch as their experiment rides historic SpaceX rocket launch

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canavera Friday. The rocket will deliver almost 7,000 pounds of science research, crew supplies, and hardware to the International Space Station. [AP photo]
The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canavera Friday. The rocket will deliver almost 7,000 pounds of science research, crew supplies, and hardware to the International Space Station. [AP photo]
Published Apr. 9, 2016

Times Staff Writer

CAPE CANAVERAL — The three girls sat arms interlocked on the bleachers at the Kennedy Space Center, watching the rocket and praying history wouldn't repeat itself.

Something that belonged to Chandrika Gandrui, 12, Casey Utsler, 11, and Karinna Crespo, 12, former classmates at Fishhawk Creek Elementary School, was in the Dragon capsule bound for the International Space Station and mounted atop the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that launched Friday: The second iteration of a science experiment designed to measure the growth of cottonseeds in zero gravity. The first version was destroyed after the Falcon 9 rocket it was aboard disintegrated shortly after takeoff on June 28, 2015 due to a faulty strut in the liquid oxygen fuel tank.

The students hope their research could one day aid a manned mission to Mars, since astronauts might need to cultivate their own crops. On Friday, it was part of a larger experiment by SpaceX to see if it can recycle the rockets that shoot capsules through the atmosphere, lowering the cost of space travel.

"I was so nervous," said Chandrika Gandrui, 12, a sixth grader at Williams Middle Magnet School in Lithia. "I started crossing my fingers, my toes, my hair."

Ten minutes after the scheduled 4:43 p.m. liftoff, the rocket, equipped with an upgraded strut system, reached its preliminary orbit around Earth. Lightning didn't strike twice. What's more, the girls were there as SpaceX made history, successfully landing the first stage rocket booster on a barge in the Atlantic Ocean for the first time after four failed attempts.

"Oh my God, it was amazing," said Karinna Crespo, 12, after it was clear the rocket had cleared the atmosphere. "I started crying just like last time, but this time it was for a different reason. I couldn't believe it actually went up."

"I was pretty nervous when it got to the point when it exploded before," Casey said, "but when it just kept getting smaller and smaller I thought it was safe."

In a maneuver captured in riveting video, the rocket booster landed upright on a platform ship positioned 300 miles from the coast, a major step toward the Los Angeles-based company's goal of revolutionizing space travel. Engineers welded the 160-foot tall rocket to the deck of the boat, called Of Course I Still Love You, to keep it from toppling over on its journey back to land.

"I think it's another step toward the stars," said billionaire investor and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. "In order for us to really open up access to space, we have to achieve full and rapid reusability. And to be able do that for the primary rocket booster, I think that will be a huge impact on cost."

Musk estimated it costs his company about $60 million to build a Falcon 9 rocket from scratch, but only $200,000 to refuel it. He said by reusing parts, SpaceX will be able to launch every few weeks.

SpaceX successfully landed a Falcon 9 booster upright on solid ground at Cape Canaveral in December. However, not all missions are suitable for landing on terra firma, so mastering the water landing is critical to SpaceX's reusability venture, Musk said. In only about half of SpaceX's future missions will engineers attempt to land the rocket on land.

Musk said it's likely the rocket booster will fly again. SpaceX engineers will test fire the engines 10 times on the ground before determining if it's airworthy, and it could be back in the sky as early as May or June, according to Musk. He said in the future, rockets should be able to fly up to 100 times with only minor refurbishment.

"I never in my wildest dreams could imagine something like this," Karinna said.

The experiment she and her Hillsborough County teammates designed tests the effect of low gravity on the rate of cottonseed germination. It's housed in a small plastic tube that is no more than six inches long and one inch in diameter and sectioned by clamps chambers. The two outer compartments have cottonseeds and the middle has water. Several days after the capsule docks with the ISS on Sunday morning, astronauts will expose one set of seeds to water. They'll expose the other set of seeds to water weeks before the experiment returns to Earth in May inside the Dragon capsule, which will also bring back samples collected during astronaut Scott Kelly's year in space, as well as broken hardware and trash.

The next step for the students is to conduct a control experiment on the ground identical to the one on the ISS. Once the space experiment returns to Earth, the students will compare the growth of the seeds under Earth's gravity conditions to that of the seeds under low gravity.

Also included in the Dragon's 7,000 pound payload was the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, an inflatable habitat NASA is testing. The 3,100 experimental capsule will be installed onto the outside of the space station and will stay there for two years before being discarded to burn up in the Earth's atmosphere. During those two years, astronauts will collect data about the capsule, which is designed to ward of small meteors and leak instead of burst in the event of a puncture.

The space flight, called Commercial Resupply Services mission 8 (CRS-8), is SpaceX's eighth resupply mission to the ISS. It's part of a contract between NASA and SpaceX that calls for 20 launches through 2019, at a cost not to exceed $3.1 billion.

NASA began contracting with private companies in 2008 after it retired the shuttle program. Currently, SpaceX and Virginia-based Orbital ATK have NASA contracts to resupply the space station.

Musk alluded to what could be next for SpaceX during a news conference after the launch. He said he'll be making a speech in Mexico this fall about his vision for creating a city on Mars.

"I think it's going to sound pretty crazy," he said. "But it should be at least entertaining."

Maybe they'll grow cotton there.

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

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