Rocket explosion destroys work of local 8th-graders

Mark Hicks

It was supposed to be a soaring moment for the eighth-graders from Wilkinson Middle School in Madison Heights.

A project proposal by students Israa Alfadhli, Farah Sabah, Regina Alsabagh and Maryam Kafra — to test the effects of microgravity on the interaction of iodine tablets with coliform-infected water — was impressive enough to guarantee them a spot among the 18 student teams nationwide sending experiments aboard an unmanned commercial supply rocket bound for the International Space Station. Some 1,487 proposals had been submitted from student teams through the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program.

But their dreams were dashed Tuesday evening when the rocket exploded moments after liftoff, with debris falling in flames over the launch site in Wallops Island,Virginia, after the original launch set for Monday night was scuttled. No injuries were reported following the first catastrophic launch in NASA's commercial spaceflight effort.

"I think it's heartbreaking to see their work lost in that way," Randy Speck, superintendent for the school district, said Tuesday night. "It's sad to see their heartbreak, but it's also encouraging when you talk to them, the first thing they say is: 'Tell me no one got hurt.'"

Also on board: a "mission patch" from another Wilkinson student, Tanner Barndollar. His design was among some 58,000 submissions, which were winnowed to eight selections, according to Madison District Public Schools.

Wilkinson students had been preparing since February for a shot at sky-scraping glory, Speck said. More than 60 experiments were designed, which local teachers narrowed down to 12, then area engineers narrowed those down to three submitted for consideration in the national program, he said.

The eighth-grade girls had already experienced challenges long before the rocket launch. Each is an Iraqi refugee whose family relocated to the United States in the last few years, Speck said. "They have faced harder circumstances," he said.

While the explosion saddened the students, Speck said it taught them a life lesson about dealing with setbacks.

"They've worked hard for this and they'll regroup with people from NASA and those we worked with to see if there is another opportunity to do this," he said. "These students are positive kids and they're going to realize that not everything goes as planned. ... This was by far one of the most amazing experiences I've ever had as a school leader — to see the lives of these kids completely transformed by having a relevant hands-on experience. It's just an amazing experience … and these students have gained confidence in themselves."

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.

It also was the fourth space station delivery for the Virginia-based Orbital Sciences. Each one honors a deceased person linked to the company or commercial spaceflight; this one pays tribute to Mercury astronaut Deke Slayton, who led a rocket company until his death in 1993.

The accident at Orbital Sciences Corp.'s launch complex at Wallops Island was sure to draw criticism over the space agency's growing reliance on private U.S. companies in this post-shuttle effort.

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.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.