Knoxville students' space experiment destroyed in rocket explosion

Posted at 10:16 PM, Oct 28, 2014

A select group of Knox County students were disheartened, not to mention frightened, to witness an unmanned commercial supply rocket explode on liftoff in Virginia on Tuesday night, destroying theirs and other student experiments destined for the International Space Station.

The Antares rocket blew up approximately 6 seconds into its flight from Orbital Sciences Corp.’s launch complex at Wallops Island, marking the first major failure in NASA’s commercial spaceflight effort.

RELATED:Commercial rocket headed to space station explodes

The Cygnus cargo ship atop the rocket carried 5,000 pounds of equipment and supplies, along with numerous student experiments chosen in a national contest by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education.

Among the entries was the project of a group of students with L&N STEM Academy and other Knox County Schools.

Six of the teens, along with two L&N instructors, had traveled to Virginia to be on-hand for the launch — at a viewing area 1.6 miles from the launchpad — only to watch their efforts destroyed in the fireball, said L&N STEM Academy Principal Becky Ashe.

“They were close enough to feel the percussion of the blast … they felt the heat,” said Ashe, who spoke to the students by phone about 10 minutes after the explosion. “They described it as very scary.”

Orbital Sciences representatives said everyone at the site had been accounted for, and the damage appeared to be limited to the facilities.

There was no hint of any trouble until the rocket exploded. This was the second launch attempt for the mission. Monday evening’s try was thwarted by a stray sailboat in the rocket’s danger zone. The restrictions are in case of just such an accident that occurred Tuesday.

About one-third of the capsule’s contents involved research. Among the instruments that were lost: a meteor tracker and 32 mini research satellites.

NASA is paying billions of dollars to Orbital Sciences and the SpaceX company to make station deliveries, and it’s counting on SpaceX and Boeing to start flying U.S. astronauts to the orbiting lab as early as 2017. NASA spokesman Rob Navias said there was nothing on the lost flight that was urgently needed by the six people living on the space station. SpaceX is scheduled to launch another supply ship from Cape Canaveral in December.

The Knox County students’ selected experiment sought to explore an economically friendly way to dispose of bodily wastes in space rather than bringing them back home. Albeit a bit icky, the project could prove useful for human space travel in the coming years.

The project actually intended to observe how cornstarch — which has a cellulose-like makeup similar to human waste — reacts with RID-X, which is used to break up septic tank clogs.

The submission represented four months of work by the students and their project sponsors, L&N teachers David Hawkins and Nick Wilsey.

Orbital Sciences already has assured the student teams that they will have another chance to launch their experiments on a future flight.

“They did everything according to NASA specifications,” Ashe said. “They took meticulous notes. So they could recreate it very easily.”

Ashe also noted that the rocket’s failure only underscored an important lesson reiterated throughout the students’ work.

“One of the mantras of the program all the way through it has been … this is real space fight, and you can’t ever take it for granted,” Ashe said. “There’s always risk.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.