Three high school students were going to get the science lesson of a lifetime by flying their experiment in space.
Instead they got a life lesson about loss, but more importantly about determination, as they watched their experiment get wiped out for the second straight time by a rocket failure on Sunday.
The students from North Charleston, South Carolina, had come up with an intricate electronics circuitry experiment. It was supposed to fly last October to the International Space Station on an Antares rocket out of Wallops Island, Virginia.
But it blew up as they watched from only 1.7 miles away. Joe Garvey was knocked over by the blast coming off the launch pad. Rachel Lindbergh felt the heat on her face.
Eight months passed. Every other student team got to fly their experiments again, but finally Sunday was the turn for Joe, Rachel and Gabe Voigt, and their teacher, Gabe’s mother, Kellye.
They drove down to Cape Canaveral, Florida, and joked about their luck.
Then the unmanned SpaceX rocket launched Sunday carrying their experiment and those of several other student groups. It soared into the sky. High fives were exchanged. They started heading back for lunch.
Then their phones started buzzing with text messages, condolences. Rachel’s was from her grandmother.
“We thought grandma must have been watching the wrong channel,” Rachel recalled from her hotel.
She wasn’t. The rocket broke apart. Their experiment was lost again.
This one didn’t hit as hard or hurt as much, maybe because they really didn’t see it, Joe said. That’s rocket science. Failure happens, Rachel said.
“There’s a lot of life lessons to take from this too,” Gabe said. “If something happens, that doesn’t mean it’s the end of that.”
After their first launch, the students improved the experiment to include circuitry from the space shuttle Endeavour, which was better than what they tried at first. Next time, they’ll do even better, the three students vowed.
Joe said all he wants to do is get this done before he graduates in two years — he and Gabe will be juniors in the fall.
Within 10 minutes, teacher Voigt got a call from their mentors at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. They’re going to get more space shuttle circuitry to fly again.
Rachel and Joe will be at a space conference next week in Boston to talk about their experiment.
“Disappointing, sure,” Rachel said. “You can’t let things stop you.”