Falcon 9 Failure Is Second Setback for Unlucky Student Space Scientists

Falcon 9 Failure Is Second Setback for Unlucky Student Space Scientists
Falcon 9 CRS-7 Break up
The break up of the Falcon 9 rocket over Kennedy Space Centre (Credit:NASA)

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, carrying the Dragon CRS-7 mission to resupply the International Space Station (ISS), broke up 2 minutes and 19 seconds after its liftoff from the Kennedy Space Center on Sunday. The cause of the launch failure is not yet known with certainty, but its impact is very clear, especially on students who had experiments onboard.

This is the third resupply mission to the ISS lost within the last year, and not the first with student projects aboard.

Earlier this year, 18 student experiments from the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) Mission 6 were lost in an Antares rocket explosion during its launch from Wallops Island, Virginia. The Antares, and the Cygnus spacecraft it carried, were built by OrbitalATK, SpaceX’s competitor for resupply of the ISS.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fTom8xVzFdo]

Seventeen of those experiments have already been successfully re-flown, on SpaceX’s CRS-5 Dragon flight in December last year. Only one, which belonged to the students from Palmetto Scholars Academy in North Charleston, South Carolina, was on CRS-7. This team has now uniquely lost its experiment twice.

During the press conference following the CRS-7 launch failure, Mike Suffredini, the International Space Station Program Manager at NASA, was asked about his reaction to those students, who had experiments destroyed in the Antares launch failure, then rebuilt them, and then had them destroyed again in the CRS-7 failure.

“…it’s really what you do after you have had to face adversity that really defines what you’re going to be able to do, and I think that’s a really important lesson for these kids. So, we will help them get back online. Well will help them in getting their hardware built again and get to orbit and do their experiments and hopefully, this will be a positive lesson. But it’s a big impact and it’s hard on them, I know, ‘cause it’s hard on me.” — Mike Suffredini, International Space Station Program Manager, NASA

The Palmetto students’ experiment was to investigate how spaceflight and micro-gravity affects the formation of tin whiskers in lead-free solder. It consisted of a piece of the Space Shuttle Endeavour, which had flown on many previous missions. The piece was donated to the team by scientists at NASA’s  Goddard Space Flight Center, to replace the original experimental sample lost at Wallops. The piece was significant since it had already developed the tin whiskers the student team wanted to study.

Silver Sulfide Whiskers growing out of surface-mount resistors. (Credit: Jonathon Reinhart)
Silver Sulfide Whiskers growing out of surface-mount resistors. (Credit: Jonathon Reinhart)

The 24 other experiments that formed part of the SSEP Mission 7 launched on CRS-7, that were destroyed Sunday, will hopefully be reflown by NanoRacks as rapidly as the experiments lost last year at Wallops.

However the SSEP payloads weren’t the only student projects on CRS-7. Also onboard were the CASIS sponsored National Design Challenge payloads with experiments from two Houston and three Denver schools, investigating topics from vermicomposting in a closed system, to the viability of algal hydrogen production.

Other losses include 8 PlanetLabs ‘Dove’ spacecraft, to add to the 26 spacecraft they lost last year in the Wallops explosion.

The most significant loss in Sunday’s launch failure, at least the one most talked about by the media, is the International Docking Adaptor (IDA-1) which was designed to make it possible for commercial crew vehicles being developed by SpaceX and Boeing to dock to the space station.

Two Planet Labs 'Doves' from Flock-1 just deployed outside the ISS. (Credit: NASA)
Two Planet Labs ‘Doves’ from Flock-1 just deployed outside the ISS. (Credit: NASA)

And for those of you that might be wondering, the Astro Pi heading to the ISS wasn’t onboard Dragon on Sunday. While originally scheduled for CRS-7, the Pi may now be travelling to orbit alongside astronaut Tim Peake onboard his Soyuz capsule in July.

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Alasdair Allan is a scientist, author, hacker and tinkerer, who is spending a lot of his time thinking about the Internet of Things. In the past he has mesh networked the Moscone Center, caused a U.S. Senate hearing, and contributed to the detection of what was—at the time—the most distant object yet discovered.

View more articles by Alasdair Allan


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