Enter The Dragon: Hartford Science Experiment Aboard First Commercial Flight To Space Station
By VANESSA DE LA TORRE
May 22, 2012
HARTFORD— — The rat cells have been launched into space.
SpaceX's Dragon blasted off early Tuesday from Cape Canaveral, Fla., carrying aboard roughly 1,200 pounds of cargo — and a Hartford science project — in the first commercial flight aiming to dock on the International Space Station.
The private cargo includes 15 student experiments from around the country. One is from Annie Fisher STEM Magnet School and the University High School of Science and Engineering in the city's North End.
"Finally," said Aime Levesque, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Hartford who mentored the team of students on their project involving osteoporosis.
"There's been delay after delay," Levesque said Tuesday afternoon, "so I'm happy it finally launched."
So are government and SpaceX officials. Under President Barack Obama's direction, NASA is now relying on private companies to resupply the space station, a new era following last year's retirement of the space shuttle program.
Enter the Dragon, a thimble-shaped capsule from Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, the California-based space transportation firm that has a contract with NASA.
"The significance of this day cannot be overstated," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement released Tuesday after Dragon's launch.
Hartford's participation is through the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program, an initiative of the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education inWashington, D.C., and NanoRacks, a company that operates a research lab on the space station.
After a fall competition at the two Hartford magnet schools, scientists and engineers at Hamilton Sundstrand picked the top three proposals. An expert panel in Washington then selected the winning experiment, which required a NASA flight safety review before final approval.
Students began preparing the experiment in February at a University of Hartford lab. They are Annie Fisher eighth-graders Roshawn Brown, Tristan DeRosiers, Liam Flannery and Nick Rapp; University High School seniors Samantha Cedeno and Bo-Edward Lawrence; and Rob Lipski, a University of Hartford senior who graduated over the weekend.
The students were interested in bone loss — a risk for astronauts in extended spaceflight — and designed an experiment that uses a synthetic version of parathyroid hormone to stimulate the growth of osteoblasts, or bone-building cells. The Swiss biotech firm Lonza donated $1,700 worth of rat osteoblast cells for the project.
Will microgravity affect the growth? The experiment, which fit into a vial roughly the size of a Sharpie pen, attempts to figure that out. The H.A. Vance Foundation in Hartford funded the $20,000 cost for the ride on Dragon.
School communities in California, Texas, Nebraska, Iowa, Indiana, Ohio, Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Fitchburg, Mass., also have science experiments aboard the unmanned capsule that launched at 3:44 a.m. Tuesday with SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket firing its nine engines.
The student experiments were originally scheduled to fly on Soyuz 30 until the Russian spacecraft failed a pressurization test in January. The Hartford team then learned, happily, that NanoRacks' Aquarius payload would instead be part of Dragon's historic test mission to "berth" with the International Space Station.
Station astronauts would tend to the experiments.
A liftoff attempt on Saturday was aborted at the launch pad due to a faulty engine valve. Software issues had already pushed back the capsule's target launch date from March to May. SpaceX hopes Dragon will eventually carry astronauts.
Dragon may approach the space station on Friday. In statements, NASA and SpaceX officials appear to tamp down expectations over whether it will successfully dock, a delicate maneuver that includes station astronauts reaching for it with a robotic arm. The capsule will likely return to Earth in the next few weeks, parachuting into the Pacific Ocean, according to NASA.
"I'm confident it's going to come back," said Michael Fromerth, a University High School science teacher. "When? I don't know. I think it's fantastic that it's up there and we look forward to getting our results."
"Everyone's invested so much time in this," Levesque said. "They want to see what happened."
Last July, an Annie Fisher student experiment flew 5.3 million miles aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis, the final flight of NASA's shuttle fleet. Annie Fisher eighth-graders tested the effect of microgravity on tomato growth — there was no apparent impact — after a schoolwide competition also conducted through the national Student Spaceflight Experiments Program.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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