Julia Powell, age 15, hasn’t finished high school, but is suddenly one of the world’s top experts in the difficulty of space flight. Powell has twice helped build science experiments to be sent to the International Space Station, and twice watched her projects get vaporized due to rocket failures.
“I always knew it was hard to launch a rocket,” said Powell, a rising sophomore at Duchesne Academy in Houston. “But I had never thought it was that hard that it would happen to me twice.”
Sunday morning, Powell was driving to nearby Galveston with a friend when she got a call from her dad, who had promised to record the SpaceX launch.
“He told me it had exploded and I thought he was joking,” Powell recalled. “So he put me on speaker phone and had me listen to the news. And then I was like, okay, he’s not joking, it actually failed again.”
Powell has spent almost two years hoping to conduct research in space, and says she won’t give up now. Shortly after the explosion, she called Kathy Duquesnay, the teacher overseeing the project, to talk about next steps.
“I don’t like quitting things,” Powell said. “We spent a lot of time on it and it’s kind of like, why stop now?”
It all started in the fall of Powell’s 8th-grade year. The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space granted her science class — taught by Duquesnay — a chance design an experiment for the International Space Station.
Their usual classwork was put on hold. The students brainstormed potential experiments, and whittled them down to what NASA would approve. Then the students voted and selected a project to test the impact of blue and red LED light on plant growth in space.
Powell was assigned to the plant growth media team to determine what their pea shoots could grow in. They considered water and soil before settling on a gel-like substance.
The class finished the experiment and got back to their usual studies. The project was scheduled to launch the following fall, October 2014, on an Orbital Sciences rocket in Wallops Island, Va.
An excited Powell watched the launch on a TV in her parent’s house. But then things went wrong. The rocket blew up shortly after liftoff. Powell learned her first lesson in how tough space flight is.
Powell and the rest of her former classmates got an e-mail from their former teacher asking if they wanted to help rebuild the experiment for a second try. Powell and two other students wanted in. During free time they’d help out. Powell missed a few classes to help make deadlines.
The final experiment, rebuilt nearly identical to the first project, took up about as much space as the size of two editions of “War and Peace” stacked on one another. (“War and Peace” happens to be one of the books she’s currently reading on summer vacation.)
Powell’s project was one of 51 student experiments that NanoRacks, a launch services provider, shepherded on to SpaceX’s rocket for Sunday morning’s launch. The SpaceX rocket was the third cargo mission to the space station to end in failure since October, and the second in a row. Powell’s project wasn’t the only one to suffer an unwelcome fate once again. An algae experiment by elementary school students at her school and two projects from nearby Awty International were also on board.
“It’s a little disappointing, but there were so many other projects that were on that rocket,” Powell said. “Ours was just a school project and compared to some of the others — years of researching and funding that went into some of the other projects — I really feel for the other researchers.”