Talon staff writer Julia Carle sat down with science teacher Nancy Cripe in September 2012 to discuss what Minnehaha Academy students will do in their International Space Station (ISS) experiment, which will be conducted in Spring 2013.
How would you define the ISS program at Minnehaha?
The Minnehaha ISS program gives a phenomenal opportunity to our students to take their science and math background and create an experiment that actually is going to go up to the space station, collect data from it, and add to the science knowledge base of space exploration, so it’s very practical, it’s real-world learning. It’s not just a lab you would conduct during a class; it’s actually a designed and ground-tested experiment that will really go someplace and really do something and really contribute to space exploration and at the same time really gives students an opportunity to learn and apply with their learning in a very exciting, very unique arena – the space station. I mean how many high school students get to send their experiment to the space station? Very, very few.
What is the International Space Station? What is it used for? Who experiments with it?
It is an international venture so it’s not just Americans, it’s Russians, Japanese … many of the countries have participated, but our experiment will go to the United States portion of the space station, and there really are different parts of it. So there are astronauts that go up to the space station and then they stay there for a number of months usually, and then come back down. Our experiment will go up on an unmanned rocket. It goes to the space station, the astronauts install it – it’s called a NanoRack – they plug it in. They put a USB from our experiment into a computer, and then they download data for a month and they send it back to earth for us.
Who operates the space station?
NASA obviously is in charge of the space station. There is a company called NanoRacks, and they buy space on the space station where experiments can be plugged in. NanoRacks then turns and sells their space to schools, universities and organizations that would like to have room on the space station. But obviously the amount of space that’s made available is very limited. We’re partnering through the Valley Christian School, which has already purchased or reserved space through NanoRacks, and so since we’re in their program we’re on the space station.
What are the negatives and positives of this project?
Well, I think the biggest positive is that students get an opportunity to do this, but there’s another great thing for the students. There are six mentors in addition to Mr. [Sam] Terfa and myself, so there are eight of us total, but six of them are engineers, software people, or engineers from the community, and they have volunteered very wonderfully to help the students with the project. So our 16 Minnehaha students are getting to work with six real-life practicing engineers and computer programming software people. And that’s a great opportunity to have somebody say, “Well, this is how we do it at my company. We used to do it this way, but now we’ve found that it’s better to do it this way.” So they’re getting some real-world experience of how engineering and programming work in industry, but they’re getting it now, as 16-, 17-year-olds. So that’s a great positive to the program. The negative isn’t really a negative so much, except that we go to space and back in nine months, which is an incredibly short period of time. This program of high-school students from Valley Christian is in its third year. Universities and colleges that have heard about this through a conference that’s held every year at Cal Poly say “it takes us years to do this! How do you get high-school students to do space-and-back in nine months?” It’s like, well, we just do! So that’s probably the negative in that sense of a very compressed time schedule, but it works, and it’s exciting, and maybe it will inspire these universities to say, “Oh, we can do it, to space in back in nine months, too.” That’s the challenge, I think, the time frame.
What is an advantage of doing an experiment in space?
It’s not so much that it’s an advantage. It’s just that it’s a really terrific opportunity to experiment in a microgravity environment. But the idea is that you run the experiment here on the ground, here on earth, and at the same time you run the experiment at the space station in a microgravity environment, and then you compare the two and you [compare the results]…. If you have a polymer paint, and you want to paint a surface of a metal surface in space to see if it prevents rust, lets’ say, will that paint actually stick to the surface? Or does it just drip, drip, drip? Or does it dry? Or not dry? So how does gravity affect these things?
What do scientists already know about microgravity environments?
That some things surprisingly don’t work so well and other things aren’t affected or sometimes even enhanced because there’s very little gravity. Cells appear to grow a little faster because there isn’t gravity to the same extent there is on earth. So some things are a negative, and some things are a positive.
As an anatomy teacher, what is your view of the project?
There are real challenges facing humans in space, two in particular. One, human immune systems don’t work as well in space, so people are more susceptible to infections and illnesses and things like that, and we’re not really sure why. Another thing is the bone density and muscle mass diminishes while astronauts are in a microgravity environment. So their body responds with diminishing of bone and muscle, and that’s a concern if you’re going to be doing things that are longer than the space station, which is usually a handful of months. Now, the students have chosen an experiment that is not biologically related for this year. It’s polymers, and that’s great. Maybe if we continue this project as we hope to, maybe we’d do a biological experiment.
What questions do scientists still have about microgravity environments or hope to learn?
One of the assignments this summer was for the 16 students on the team to go to the NASA website and look at all the experiments that have happened on the space station since it’s been there. There were hundreds of them by category; it’s an amazing collection of experiments that have been tried or are ongoing. But really, the sky is the limit – or the sky is not the limit in this case. There’s just so many things to explore. Can we send manned spacecraft further? We’ve sent unmanned probes to Venus and Mars. Can we send people that far? And if so, what would we have to do? How do you grow enough food for people on that length of a journey? What about water? And what about their aging process? How long will it take to get there and get back? So there are many questions I think that deal with these space explorations that go farther and farther out, and they take longer and longer periods of time.
Which questions are suitable for high-school students? Are they hoping to discover something new with this?
Yeah, they very well may. The NASA listing of experiments that I just mentioned to you is more to get people thinking, “Wow, they’ve been experimenting with lasers, and cancer cells in space, and water purification, and from that students researched and came up with three really great ideas. We’re going to do polymers this year, but the other ideas were just fantastic! And so with people from the industry, these other mentors, I think they could come up with some very interesting and very note-worthy contributions to the field of space exploration, which is very exciting.
Has the project been going smoothly or have there been complications?
I think fairly smoothly so far. However, this is the first time through, and we’re learning as we go. It’s not like we can say, “Oh, well, last year we did this….” We can look at some other schools who have pioneered the project. The prime one is Valley Christian High School in San Jose. They’re the school that asked us to join into the program so this is their third year, and we’re using some of their models and suggestions. But it’s the first time through, and there’s just lots to learn and hurdles but nothing that’s been discouraging. I think challenges are exciting.
How demanding is the project?
At this point we’re still kind of ramping up but the students were told in their application process that they should count on at least four hours a week outside of [school], it’s an extra-curricular activity. But the students just chose the project a couple days ago so now that we have a project we have two months really from the middle of September to the middle of November to build and ground test and get ready for a flight test of the entire project. It’s creative work, it’s researching and building and thinking how is this going to work? I think it’s very engaging and a process with a deadline. You know you have to have this project ready to be shipped to California in the middle of November or actually taken to California on an airplane for its first round of testing. It gives us a big deadline.
Is there anything you’d like students that aren’t on the team to know about this project?
Good question. I think the main thing is just to encourage and support the students on the team, because they’re working under a tremendous time constraint. They’re using a lot of creativity and energy, and they’re learning a ton in addition to being athletes and musicians and students, and to support them because they’re representing our school in the centennial year. What a wonderful opportunity for Minnehaha to celebrate its centennial year by sending an experiment designed by students to the space station. So, support them, and encourage them, and pray for them.