At first, Isaac Buss wasn’t sure what he was seeing last week from his vantage point at Cape Canaveral minutes after NASA launched a rocket bound for the International Space Station.
Maybe, the recent Johnson County Central High School graduate thought, the flash of light some 2 minutes into the launch was the rocket leaving earth’s atmosphere, making its way into space with the test tubes he and his classmates had painstakingly assembled.
Then a NASA official ushered them into a room, and the truth became clear.
That flash of light was an explosion and the Johnson County Central High School students’ experiment – along with a rocket full of supplies heading to the International Space Station – was now debris floating somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean.
“We were kind of shocked,” said Buss, who graduated from high school in May. “Then we realized ours could be easily replaced. The other stuff was harder to replace.”
The Falcon 9 was carrying more than 4,000 pounds of food and other supplies, including a water filtration system and a piece of hardware to help two new crew vehicles dock to the station.
The vessel also was carrying the experiment designed by Buss and five of his classmates along with those from 24 other schools or districts across the country as a part of a national science program.
The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program is the brainchild of Jeff Goldstein, the director of the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education, a non-profit organization dedicated to STEM education on a national level.
The program gives students a chance to participate in real research, which is, it turns out, what Buss and his classmates got a taste of as they watched their work disappear in a flash of light.
“Things happen. This is actual research," said their teacher Vicky Boone. "We’re not doing this for a science fair or for class. This is really going up. The delays, the blowing up, this is what happens in real science.”
The students got a shot at real science because of Boone, a first-year teacher on her third career who read about the program in an e-mail and thought it sounded like fun.
When she found out it cost $21,000, she figured there was no way. But then she got two grants, $9,000 from the Sherwood Foundation, $10,000 from a grant program called NASA Nebraska, and the local board of education made up the difference.
The program requires at least 300 students participate, which meant all 311 Johnson County Central students from fifth to 12th grade got involved.
They divided into groups in the fall, came up with experiments designed for space, wrote proposals and presented them. They also held a contest to design mission patches.
A panel of school and community leaders picked three finalists from the 55 experiments, and the national program officials narrowed the three finalists to one that would go into space.
Created by Buss, Rudy Pooch, Keelee McClintock, Natalie Roddy, Mason Waring and Spencer Dorsey, the experiment was designed to see how red clover interacts with soil in space.
On earth, certain plants – like red clover – put nitrogen into the soil, which helps make the soil fertile for planting. The students wanted to see what happened in space.
“Basically if you ever want to farm in space, you need to find a way to make soil richer in nitrogen,” Boone said. “If you want to grow things on Mars you’re going to have to see if it works.”
Buss and McClintock went to Florida to see their experiment launch into space with 24 others.
One of those was making its second trip to space after being on another failed mission in October. The other student experiments on the October flight, which exploded on takeoff, relaunched in January, Goldstein said.
After the failed launch, five students went to Washington D.C. to present the research on the red clover experiment and one of the finalists at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
Buss said he and his classmates were excited for the trips, but also to be part of something at the space station, but it was a lot of work.
"The idea is just the beginning,” he said.
Boone -- who went through a master's program to become a science teacher after spending 13 years as a medical doctor then switching to the field of computerized medical records -- said giving students a chance to dip their toes in the real world of science was the best part.
They’re not done. They'll redo their experiment in preparation for the next launch, hopefully by the end of the year, Goldstein said.
“NASA is very dedicated to sending those student experiments back up there,” Goldstein said. “The overarching message to all our flight teams from the moment of launch to present time is this is really space flight. What we do in face of failure defines who we really are.”