Santa Rosa students’ stake in exploding rocket

Students at Mark West Charter and Riebli Elementary schools had a personal stake in the unmanned rocket that exploded Tuesday as it launched skyward toward the International Space Station.

They had designed two patches on the NASA-contracted ship. The patches symbolized a science experiment they’d spent months crafting and sent to the space station on an earlier summer mission. The project itself, encased in a 6-inch test tube, was on an earlier mission and was unscathed by the explosion, contrary to what some media outlets reported.

The project returned safely to Earth on Saturday and is expected to arrive at Mark West for student analysis any day now. The news was grimmer for 18 other schools and communities that had placed experiments on the rocket that launched Tuesday off Virginia’s coast. The experiments were among 5,000 pounds of food and other supplies lost in the as-yet unexplained explosion.

Mark West students were saddened their patches didn’t make it to the space station, said the school’s director Pam Carpenter. But, she said, she was impressed by how they handled the news.

“The kids were understanding,” she said. “They’re taking it really well, saying, ‘We don’t always get it right, but it’s something to learn from to help us do better next time.’ What a great thing for them to learn from this experience.”

Eighth-grade student Halei Trowbridge spent a week carefully designing one of the winning patches last year. Her artwork depicts the subject of their experiment, a tiny, shrimplike crustacean called a triops, floating against a backdrop of deep blue space, gold stars and colorful planets. Students wanted to see if the creature could be grown in space and harvested as a protein-rich food source for astronauts. Riebli student Riley McCarthy designed a second patch, which showed Earth floating before an American flag.

“It was a bit disappointing. I worked really hard on (the patch); I wanted it to be meaningful,” Trowbridge acknowledged. “But at the same time, not too many kids get to say they had a piece of artwork that exploded on a rocket.”

The school preserved a digital picture of the patch, so her work is not completely lost. Jeff Goldstein, director of the national, nonprofit Student Spaceflight Experiment Program that launches the student experiments, said his organization is now looking at ways to get students’ re-created patches and experiments on a future spaceflight. They’ll do so at no cost to the schools, which had raised about $23,000 to participate in the program’s curriculum and pay for space on the flight.

“We will get that payload back up,” Goldstein said. “Students need to understand that failure happens, but it’s what one does in the face of failure that defines who they are.”

Riebli Elementary students and seventh- and eighth-graders from Mark West embarked on the program last school year, designing the experiment and patches as part of an extensive curriculum where they learned about aeronautics and micro-gravity.

Students at first thought that their entire experiment had been destroyed after hearing initial news reports.

“All I was thinking was that we had spent months on this, we’d had months of setbacks, and then it blew up,” said eighth-grade student Chandler Andrew. He was referring to the fact that their project saw several delays in its launch date last spring.

He and others said they were relieved Wednesday morning when Carpenter assured them their project was intact.

Now, they’ll get to analyze the results when their test tube returns this week.

“I’m excited for it to come back,” Andrew said.

The explosion also was of interest to Petaluma High School students who this fall are participating in the Student Spaceflight Experiment Program and beginning to craft proposals for an experiment they hope will be launched into space in the spring.

“It definitely made for an interesting discussion about the issues with and the dangers of space travel,” science teacher Linda Judah said.

Mark West’s Trowbridge said she felt she had a better understanding of how science works because of the experience.

“It’s not just, you do something and it’s done,” she said. “You have to do a lot of work and persevere through all the obstacles the universe throws at you.”

Staff Writer Jamie Hansen blogs about education at You can reach her at 521-5205 or On Twitter @jamiehansen.

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