Future Tense

Middle Schoolers’ Dreams of Worms in Space Still Alive Despite Rocket Explosion

Tuesday evening’s spectacular Antares launch mishap wasn’t just the first failure of NASA’s commercial rocket program. It was also a tough lesson in the challenges of doing real science for hundreds of elementary, high school, and college students across the country. According to an Antares payload manifest, a good portion of the rocket’s cargo was comprised of student-led science experiments.

No humans were hurt at the launch site in Virginia, but the rocket explosion unfortunately proved tragic for a payload of worms that were part of an experiment designed by middle school students from the Urban Promise Academy, a public school in Oakland, California.

Three middle school students in Oakland—Jose Morga, Kevin Cruz, and Cithlali Hernandez—devoted much of their last year to answering an important question related to human spaceflight: what happens to all that leftover astronaut food?

Needless to say, they were pretty excited about getting to see their composting space worms fly to the space station:

Here’s a summary of the proposal they submitted to the Student Spaceflight Experiment Program, which was selected along with 17 others out of a pool of 1,487 student teams from across the country:

Composting in Microgravity

Urban Promise Academy, Grade 6, Oakland, California
Composting in Microgravity asks the question: Are Eisenia fetida (red worms) able to compost food waste into soil in microgravity? If they can, it means that fertile soil can be created in space that helps plants grow, gives off oxygen, and even provides food for astronauts and scientists on the International Space Station (ISS).  Sending some Eisenia fetida to microgravity and seeing if they compost food waste into soil, this hypothesis is being tested. The same experiment is conducted on the Earth in order to compare and contrast the ground results and microgravity results. This is important because the results will determine if Eisenia Fetida can compost food waste into soil for plant seeds. Growing plants in fertile soil could provide food and oxygen to everyone on the ISS and future space travelers. It is also important because this could help the astronauts and scientists on the ISS decrease the amount of space that food waste takes up.

The students also put together a short video explaining their project.

I spoke with their science teacher, Alison Ball, on the phone a few hours after the failed Antares launch.

My condolences to your students for the loss of their worms. How are they taking the news?

We were certainly shocked and feel for all of the other teams that lost experiments, in addition to the other materials aboard. Plus … the poor worms!

The students’ sense is that this was very surreal. They students got together to watch the launch after school [Tuesday]. The live feed was pretty grainy, so honestly they thought at first that it had gone up. They thought the extra light was just a flare from the base of the rocket. It wasn’t until later that they realized that it actually had exploded.

What kind of work went in to getting an idea from a team of middle school students to the payload of a rocket bound for the space station?

We started this project a year ago. We ended up fundraising over $24,000 to be able to secure that spot on the rocket, and to be able to get the materials to do all the proposal writing. It really was a whole school investment.

Every student at our school last year designed microgravity experiments. We ended up with students at every grade level writing proposals, and going through the whole proposal writing process, and competition. And then this one, the worms composting in space, was the experiment that was selected by the Student Spaceflight Experiment Program to fly for us.

This isn’t the first time worms have had a less-than-perfect ticket to space. Incredibly, a group of nematodes actually survived the fiery re-entry of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003. Is there any hope for a re-launch?

We’d already sent one round of worms out and because of launch delays those worms couldn’t be sent [to space]. They, perhaps, died in a fridge somewhere in Texas. So we ended up having to send another round of worms.

Science can often be seen as this opportunity for really smart people to do work in a white coat in a really safe laboratory somewhere, and I think this gives the students a chance to get the idea that, really, science takes a lot of courage and it takes a lot of perseverance. It’s about being able to find that determination to keep driving yourself forward in the face of failure.

Of all the things that could have possibly gone wrong with a student experiment being sent to space, this was the last thing that we had anticipated. It’s a lot of disappointment, but I think this is also a real learning opportunity for students. They’re getting a chance to do real science. So coupled with this is just the feeling that this work is really important. They’re going to get a chance to do this again, we just got word. They’re definitely going to get to relaunch.

That’s great news!

It really is. It’s a way for our whole school to rally around this group of students who put in an incredible amount of time and energy and love into a project that in some ways could be seen as a failure. I hope they really feel that sense that they’re pushing forward through a difficult time and able to overcome it. Ultimately, everyone at the school is going to be able to support them to get their experiment to the ISS.


Later, student Jose Morga told me in an email, “I feel very upset because we were going to send something to space but unfortunately the rocket failed.  … [But] I feel confident about putting the experiment together again because we’ve done it so many times so we know the procedure really well.”

Update, Oct. 29, 2014, 1 p.m.: Thanks to Cynthia Thomson for putting me in touch with Alison Ball.