For a year, students at Cristo Rey Jesuit school spent five hours a week designing science experiments that would be flown to the International Space Station by the Antares rocket. On Tuesday they gathered excitedly near the launch site on the
Among the unmanned missionis cargo was a variety of student projects, including experiments created by schools in
Students at Cristo Rey, a Catholic high school for students from low-income families in Houston, started work on the project in August last year as part of a pilot programme spearheaded by the Centre for the Advancement of Science in Space.
Two teams of eight juniors and eight seniors formed a special design class and built two experiments to see how slime moulds and lipid mimics would behave in a microgravity environment.
Four recent graduates and six seniors travelled from
All seemed normal as the rocket began to rise at 6.22pm. Within seconds, though, the group and about 150 others were being urgently evacuated and the science class had turned into a lesson about the inherent risks of space flight.
"When it went off I could see something was wrong because it wasn't lifting as it should. We saw the ignition and a couple of seconds into it . . . I've seen a lot of launches, I used to live near the Cape in Florida, and the rocket wasn't going up as it should. I could tell that, and then there was kind of a spark and an absolutely huge explosion," said one of the teachers, Greg Adragna, as the group headed home on Wednesday.
"You could actually feel the shockwave from the explosion where we were standing. And then Nasa officials immediately after that came and of course evacuated the area."
A student, Peter Obi, said he initially thought the massive burst of light was part of the plan. "I had never seen a launch before so when it got up I thought it was supposed to happen, but then they started evacuating us so I knew something had gone wrong," the 17-year-old said. "Obviously we had fun creating the project and when you see something you created be destroyed, that's definitely a feeling that isn't pleasant."
Yesenia Zetino, an 18-year-old now at Loyola University in Chicago, said that "I think just in general we're past that initial shock, that stage that we were in yesterday, and we're just thinking about it, reflecting on it now and kind of thinking about what's next. We're realising how crazy it is that something can be [destroyed] that we have no control over ... It was really surreal, it happened so fast."
"I did watch it live, it was shocking and I was really at a loss for words, full of disbelief," said Jessika Smith, a fifth-grade science teacher who followed the launch from
Smith said that her students were very sad but philosophical - recognising that there had been value in the whole experience and relieved that no one was hurt. "We've made our students very aware that as with everything in research you have setbacks and this is one of them," she said.
Zetino said that it had been a worthwhile endeavour despite what Nasa understatedly termed a mishap. She said: "I think it was worth it. It wasn't just about it going up but the experience in general. We worked so hard for such a long time, there was definitely more learning that happened and there was a lot of takeaways that still made it worth it."
Adragna said he will consider trying again. "We will be having a conference call with some of our space partners tomorrow and we will begin talking about that," he said. "It's kind of the nature of science, what do you do when you have a failure? Well, you start over again. But it's a tough lesson for the students to learn."