Rockwall students stand by for launch of their spaceflight experiment

Four of the six students attended a Jan. 6th breakfast intended as an "after-launch" celebration. From left are Brooks Helmer, James Matthews, Will Brown and Ryan Figert.

The countdown continues…

ROCKWALL, TX (Jan. 8, 2015) They might not look like rocket scientists at first glance, but six Rockwall High School freshmen will soon have the experience of a lifetime. Will Brown, Ryan Figert, Brooks Helmer, Chase Howerton, Harrison Smith, and James Matthews will watch as an experiment they designed is launched into space on NASA’s Student Spaceflight Experiments Program Mission 6.

Rockwall is one of only 18 communities participating in the program, which was introduced to the district by Secondary Science Coordinator Joey Belgard.

“It came to us through several different channels,” Belgard said. “The more we heard about it, the more it sounded like a really good idea.”

The students were first introduced to the SSEP contest as a project in their 8th grade Careers in Technology science elective class. The parameters for the project were simply “Come up with an experiment that solves a problem.” With help from University of Texas South Western grad student Derek Smith, they designed a 5-6 page proposal entitled How Microgravity Affects Yeast Cell Division and How it Relates to Human Cancer Cells.

Helmer explained that the group wanted to see how cancer cells would react to microgravity in space, and were advised by Smith to use yeast cells for the experiment because they grew similarly but were much less expensive.

Figert said that rather than designing an easy, straightforward experiment just to get the grade, the group decided they wanted to go above and beyond to increase their chances of selection for the program.

“We wanted to do something that was a real world problem,” Figert said.

Unfortunately for the students, NASA has failed six times to successfully launch the rocket containing their experiment. The first attempted launch resulted in an explosion, leading NASA to be cautious about launches afterward. The group gathered Tuesday, Jan. 6 for one of several meals intended to celebrate a launch, but still have yet to see their months of hard work make it out of the atmosphere.

Jeff Chandler, a Chemistry teacher at Rockwall High School, works with the group as their faculty advisor since they graduated from Williams Middle School before the launch could be completed. Chandler said he is impressed with the students’ dedication to their project and resilience in the face of frustrating circumstances.

“They’ve had a really positive attitude,” Chandler said. “Even after their experiment blew up—that can be a downer for people. They’ve kept working on this 6 months after the [project’s] due date.”

Once NASA launches the rocket containing the experiment successfully, it will travel to the International Space Station and scientists will conduct it in microgravity. The group said they hope the results could potentially prove beneficial for cancer research.

“We thought we could cure cancer,” Brooks said. “You never know, we still could.”

The students will have the opportunity to present the results of their proposal at a national conference at the Smithsonian Museum this summer. Although most of them aren’t planning on pursuing careers in the field of science, Figert said the group has come to a deeper appreciation of it after working so hard on their experiment.

“It’s not boring; it can be fun too,” Figert said. “That sounds cheesy, but it can be if you are interested in what you are doing. We didn’t ever think we would win, but then we spent a lot of time working on it and it all came together when we won.”

By Julie Anne White, Blue Ribbon News staff writer and reporter.

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