The usual chatter was absent from the Rasco Middle School science lab Tuesday afternoon as sixth-graders Blaine Bailes, James Link and Timothy Kotzur quietly laid out their materials.
“I have never seen them so shy,” science teacher Jamie Morton said.
The three boys had good reason for the nerves — they were preparing for a video conference with Julia Hoskins, mission manager of internal payloads with research facility NASA NanoRacks. Hoskins would talk the boys through the final preparations for an experiment to be tested aboard the International Space Station.
The project, which will determine whether butterhead lettuce seeds will germinate in microgravity, was selected to represent Brazosport ISD in the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program’s Mission 12 to the International Space Station next month.
“Are you using a screw? The purpose is so at the end you can use a syringe to fill with fluid,” Hoskins said. “If not, then you don’t need a screw.”
The national review board chose the proposal over two others submitted to the National Center for Earth and Space and Space Science Education by a committee of 30 community members and Brazosport ISD educators, much to the delight of Morton and her five students — Blaine, Timothy, James, along with Rene Sanabria and Dominick Trostle, who were unable to attend Tuesday’s video conference.
“Right now it looks like a doughnut,” Hoskins said of the tube students were preparing. “We want it to flatten a little — like you sat on a doughnut.”
Each group of Brazosport ISD sixth-graders researched and wrote a five-page proposal on what experiment they would like to test in space under microgravity, with the top proposal selected to fly to the International Space Station as part of a real space program. The ground experiment had to fit inside a 7-inch test tube and also had to prove beneficial to astronauts, Morton said.
“I knew a lot of the answers but I couldn’t tell them — I could only pinpoint or give hints,” she said. “That was real hard.”
Team members hid eight butterhead lettuce seeds in a dark closet during Christmas break, safely away from extreme heat or cold, Morton said.
Research indicated the seeds would take two to 12 days to germinate if students released the clamps at certain times to allow water to seep into the soil, she said.
“It was trial and error, trial and error, to the point they were like, ‘Oh my gosh, is this ever going to work?’” Morton said. “Finally they put their minds together and realized, ‘We can’t go over this amount, it’s not going to fit.’”
The video conference signaled the end of the hard part for students, Morton said. She mailed the tubes Wednesday morning to Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where the experiment is scheduled to blast off June 28 and stay in orbit four to six weeks.
Once the seeds’ trip is done, NASA representatives will mail them back to the Brazosport ISD administration building in Clute, where Morton and her students will pick them up and compare the number of seeds that germinated to the identical control kept in the classroom.
The students’ relief was palpable after the end of the conference, especially after hearing encouraging words from Hoskins, Morton said.
“All their color came back after they were done,” she said. “I’ve never worked with kids that have worked so hard at something and have not given up.
“I pushed them and pushed them to do better and better, and between both of us, that’s what got us here today.”