Spaceflight Insider

NASA, CASIS and NanoRacks will refly student experiments lost on SpaceX CRS-7 accident

Eight students from Chatfield High School located in Littleton, CO, along with hundreds of other spectators who attended the ill-fated June 28 Commercial Resupply Services 7 (CRS-7) launch, got a reminder of just how challenging it is to send payloads into orbit. They, and students from dozens of other schools across the country, had experiments aboard the Dragon capsule that was perched atop the SpaceX Falcon 9 v1.1 booster that was destined for the International Space Station (ISS). Around two minutes and 19 seconds into the flight, the rocket was lost – the same could not be said for the aspirations of the students.

According to Joel Bertelsen, Chatfield High’s physics and engineering instructor, they bounced back quickly and are planning to rebuild their experiments for a future flight that reportedly will be offered by the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS ), NASA, and NanoRacks.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 40 with the seventh Commercial Resupply Services mission for NASA. Photo Credit: Carleton Bailie / SpaceFlight Insider

SpaceX launched the students’ payloads on June 28, 2015 atop a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Photo Credit: Carleton Bailie / SpaceFlight Insider

Having received special clearance from NASA, the Chatfield students gathered with other students to watch the launch from a viewing porch high above the Operations Support Building 2 (OSB-2) located some 3 miles from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40 – from where the F9 had lifted off. Both the students’ teachers and families were provided with access to view the launch – but also a series of special briefings and tours.

Despite the mission mishap, Bertelsen stated that the students had left enthusiastically appreciative for their insider review of Kennedy Space Center and the many facets of space exploration. Even though these eight students, along with eighteen other teammates back in Colorado, have all graduated, he anticipates that a similar number will return in the next few weeks to rebuild the apparatus for another flight to the ISS.

The manifest of CRS-7 included over 50 investigatory experiments, including 35 from students around the country. According to CASIS – one of the organizations coordinating student experiments with NASA – most, if not all, of these experiments will be offered a chance to fly again.

It is an offer that the students from Chatfield have stated they will take them up on.

The Chatfield experiment involves the growth of algae in the microgravity environment. Why is this an interesting subject of study for CASIS and NASA? As explained by Bertelsen, the students had been intrigued by potential methods of increasing the self-sufficiency of astronauts on long-duration missions, such as a two-year round-trip mission to Mars.

A tinkerer at heart, Bertelsen first got interested in creating hydrogen from algae by conducting experiments at home with his three children on the kitchen table a little more than a year ago.

Fast-forward several months to Bertelsen’s engineering class, where the topic one day was renewable energy. In the course of that classroom discussion, the students became interested in how renewable energy could be created in space, particularly in a potential voyage to the Red Planet that NASA had been publicizing. How could astronauts generate fuel; more specifically, how could they create hydrogen?

According to NASA, hydrogen is the fuel of choice for space exploration, not only for propulsion but also in fuel cells to generate electricity aboard spacecraft.

Scientists working at the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) had recently discovered that a single-cell algae known as Chlamydomonas Reinhardtil (“clammy” for short) appears to be ideal for generating hydrogen in space. It has a fast reproductive cycle, is lightly adaptable, and can thrive on carbon in a dark environment.

The algae that the Chatfield students had planned to send aloft, Chlamydomonas Reinhardtil. Image Credit: Dartmouth Electron Microscope Facility

The algae that the Chatfield students had planned to send aloft, Chlamydomonas Reinhardtil. Image Credit: Dartmouth Electron Microscope Facility

So Bertelsen’s class, aware that CASIS was encouraging high school students to submit ideas for experiments to be conducted at the International Space Station, decided to develop a research proposal.  They received advice and technical support from Stan Kennedy of nearby Oakman Aerospace, and from Nick Sweeney and Alex Dubini of NREL.

That proposal was evaluated and eventually approved by CASIS, in partnership with NanoRacks, LLC. Those organizations work with NASA on student projects under NanoRack’s Space Act Agreement as part of the utilization of the Space Station as a National Laboratory.

Initially, the Chatfield project involved the “clammy” algae, but during project development, they decided to add another type of algae called Chlorella, a potential food source high in protein and other essential nutrients that astronauts might grow and eat during space flight. The fundamental purpose of the investigation was to determine if these two types of algae, removed from the gravitational influence of Earth, would still thrive in space, one producing hydrogen and the other providing food.

The experiment was housed in a four-chamber cylinder roughly three inches in diameter and three inches long, two chambers for each alga.  The entire apparatus, with sensors and batteries, had to fit into a 10 x 10 x 15 cm aluminum box (called a NanoLab) provided by NanoRacks.  The boxes are designed to fit into racks that would be transported to the orbiting lab aboard the Dragon capsule.

The students finished the apparatus in May, and it was loaded onto the Dragon capsule about a month later at the Space Station Processing Center located at Kennedy Space Center.

On June 28, as the Falcon 9 rocket rose into the clear morning sky, the students broke into spontaneous cheers, until at about 2 ½ minutes into the launch when they gasped as a large puff of smoke erupted from the pinpoint of flame high over the Atlantic Ocean. Then nothing was visible. Within a few seconds, the NASA public affairs officer calmly announced an “anomaly” had taken place – NASA code for a major problem. Joy turned to a stunned disbelief.

The science payload comprised more than 4,000 lbs (1,814 kg) of cargo, crew supplies, and experiments that were loaded aboard Dragon for delivery to the ISS. This shipment would have been the seventh time that a Dragon has carried out such a journey under the $1.6 billion Commercial Resupply Services contract that NASA has with SpaceX.

SpaceX Falcon 9 v1.1 Commercial Resupply Services Dragon spacecraft at International Space Station Photo Credit Scott Kelly NASA posted on SpaceFlight Insider

The Chatfield High School students’ experiment will fly again and it will likely part of a payload carried aloft by a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft like the one seen here. Photo Credit: Scott Kelly / NASA

Although the incident investigation continues, it is believed that a strut inside the booster’s second stage had failed, and with this failure, the Falcon 9’s helium system integrity was breached. This breach had led to an over pressure event inside the stage within less than a second – causing the stage to disintegrate.

According to NanoRacks Marketing and Communications Manager Abby Dickes, her company and NASA are working together to schedule the lost experiments into future flights.

“We tell the schools from the beginning that space is hard, it’s a new frontier, and a huge part of the educational process is the preparation of the experiment – not just the launch. We tell the students if something goes wrong, we will work our hardest to re-fly their experiment. We immediately got in touch with current and future customers after the launch failure, and [we] have continued communication as we learn more about the next steps,” Dickes said.

Bertelsen expects to receive another aluminum NanoLab box soon from NanoRacks, and is hopeful that they will receive instructions to proceed with the rebuild within the next few weeks. Although disappointing, the accident has demonstrated the determination of these students to participate in the business of on orbit scientific research.

“The students and I concluded that it made more sense to have some of the students who have already graduated return to do the rebuild,” he explained, “rather than have to start from scratch educating a new class about the experiment and how it works.”

Video courtesy of SpaceFlight Insider

Spaceflight Insider will report progress when the rebuild is complete and another flight is scheduled.



Jim Siegel comes from a business and engineering background, as well as a journalistic one. He has a degree in Mechanical Engineering from Purdue University, an MBA from the University of Michigan, and executive certificates from Northwestern University and Duke University. Jim got interested in journalism in 2002. As a resident of Celebration, FL, Disney’s planned community outside Orlando, he has written and performed photography extensively for the Celebration Independent and the Celebration News. He has also written for the Detroit News, the Indianapolis Star, and the Northwest Indiana Times (where he started his newspaper career at age 11 as a paperboy). Jim is well known around Celebration for his photography, and he recently published a book of his favorite Celebration scenes. Jim has covered the Kennedy Space Center since 2006. His experience has brought a unique perspective to his coverage of first, the space shuttle Program, and now the post-shuttle era, as US space exploration accelerates its dependence on commercial companies. He specializes in converting the often highly technical aspects of the space program into contexts that can be understood and appreciated by average Americans.

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