For my 18th birthday my father gave me my first build-it-yourself rocket. It was amazing. Many of you may think: what is an 18 year old girl doing playing with toy rockets? For me this was no ordinary toy, it was my first mission into space. The first time I launched my rocket was at a demonstration at my old school for the A-level students. The girls created their own miniature versions using hairspray, a small electrical switch and a camera film case. After their demonstrations we all sat together to build my rocket, put the stickers on, had a countdown, and sent it off into the skies. It was a beautiful take-off and an epic flight. Unfortunately for me, the rocket got taken away with the wind as the parachute deployed, and I had to go knocking on all the doors along the street to search the neighbouring gardens for my toy.
Now, at the age of 23, I had the chance to watch a real live rocket launch. This morning, I was up early with excitement to watch the landmark demonstration launch mission of the NASA and SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corp) Falcon 9 rocket with the Dragon capsule on board. The launch was being filmed from complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. I had never seen a live launch before, and so was very much looking forward to it.
NASA was streaming the launch live from their website. During the last few minutes you could hear the technicians checking engines, computer systems and fuel supplies over the radio. It felt like you were actually there in the control room. At the very last nail-biting second, when all systems were set to go and the NASA TV man had even announced “lift-off”, the launch had to be aborted. Computers had sensed high pressure in one of the engines, requiring immediate cancellation of the flight. Although it didn’t take off, the Falcon 9 Rocket was saved and lives to fly another day. The launch has been rescheduled to take off on Tuesday May 22nd.
SpaceX is the first private company to build an unmanned spacecraft, Dragon, under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. Dragon is a solar-powered capsule, and is the first of a new generation of spacecraft designed to deliver critical supplies to the International Space Station (ISS), and to potentially transport astronauts to and from the lab complex in 20 years time. This endeavour aims to give NASA more freedom and time to concentrate on space exploration beyond Earth, to Mars and the asteroids.
The Dragon probe also contained 15 student led experiments on board. These weren’t experiments designed by top graduate or PhD students, these were experiments designed by teenagers between the age of 11 and 19. Students from all across the USA had entered a competition called the Student Spaceflight Experiments Programme run by the National Centre for Earth and Space Science Education, which started up in 2010. It gives students a chance to create and propose real experiments to be performed in a low-Earth orbit whilst on board the ISS.
In 2010 and 2011 the first two rounds of the competition took student-led experiments up into space on the final missions of the space shuttles Endeavour and Atlantis.
This time around, however, there have been a few bumps along the way. After initially being put in the Soyuz 30 probe, the student experiments had to be moved to the Dragon capsule as it failed to pass a critical pressurization test. Not only that, but the experiments had to be taken back to the drawing board as they could no longer be refrigerated in transit to the launch pad.
What I think is amazing about this project is that the students get to take part in some REAL science. REAL science very often doesn’t go according to plan. Ideas are thought of, experiments are designed and tested. Experiments often fail these tests and then have to be redesigned. Throughout this process the initial intention of the project may change, you may realise that the cracking idea you had to start with is actually completely unrealistic and not worth researching.
The experiments that students observe in the classroom have been demonstrated by the teachers time and time again, and become extremely predictable. Even though the students see them for the first time, teachers can often lose their enthusiasm for the demonstrations, and so fail to stimulate the imagination and scientific ideas from the students. The teachers know how and why the experiments work, and they hardly fail to go wrong. What is so great about this program is that it has given students the opportunity to experience real science, where experiments are not guaranteed to always give results, often fail to start on time, and very often require adjustments.
So, much to my disappointment, I didn’t get to watch a rocket being launched into space. But hopefully on May 22nd I will get to see my first real rocket launch, and the students will finally have their experiments up and running.