Despite rocket blast, students' project to rise again

Shawn D. Lewis and Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Four Madison Heights eighth-graders learned Wednesday they will get a second chance to send a science experiment they developed into space, a day after a rocket explosion destroyed their work.

"Corporate sponsors said they will find the means to make sure the students' experiment gets to the space station," Madison District Public Schools Superintendent Randy Speck said.

The project proposal by Wilkinson Middle School 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 aboard a commercial supply rocket headed for the International Space Station.

This image taken from video provided by NASA TV shows Orbital Sciences Corp.'s unmanned rocket blowing up over the launch complex at Wallops Island, Va., just six seconds after liftoff.

But the students' excitement over their inclusion on the mission turned to disbelief and sadness Tuesday night when the unmanned rocket exploded seconds after liftoff in Wallops Island, Virginia. The Madison Heights students — all refugees from Iraq — were among 18 student teams nationwide sending experiments aboard the doomed rocket.

Wednesday, the students expressed relief and joy at being able to start again on the work they lost in the blast, which caused no injuries.

"When I first found out, I was crying, because we worked so hard and tried our best on the project," said Regina, 14. "Now I feel better because we get a another chance to get back what we lost."

Israa, 13, said when she learned of the explosion, she thought everything was over.

"I learned so much from the experiment, like how to clean contaminated water to make it safe to drink," she said. "But now I feel better and happy because we can try again."

The group's teacher, Angel Abdulahad, called each of the girls Tuesday night, trying to comfort them.

He said when he called Israa, her first question was, "Is anybody hurt?"

"She put everyone else's priorities first," he said. "I've never been more proud."

Farah, 14, said her teacher "called me and began encouraging me and gave me hope."

She said when he told her they'd be appearing on Fox 2 Wednesday morning, she was happy, but said, in the back of her mind, she still was sad.

"Because all of our hard work was blown up with the rocket, but I'm happy because we can redo it and become successful," Farah said.

Maryam, 13, said simply, "I'm happy now."

Abdulahad said his emotions also ran the gamut after learning about the explosion.

"I went from tweeting 30 seconds before the launch trying to get my children at home to understand the magnitude of what was happening, to sheer devastation 15 seconds later and my heart sank," he said.

Besides the four girls' microgravity experiment, also on board the rocket was 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 the school district.

Tuesday night's blast occurred on the second launch attempt for the mission. Monday evening's try was thwarted by a stray sailboat in the rocket's danger zone.

It was to be the fourth space station delivery for Virginia-based Orbital Sciences. 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.

Speck said the anticipation surrounding the launch, the blast and the aftermath have taken him on a roller coaster ride of emotions.

"One of the most important things I've seen throughout this, is the determination and character of these young ladies who have been through so much," he said. "I'm glad they'll have the opportunity to tell their story."

Associated Press contributed.