NASA Rocket Loses Payload Carrying Student Experiments
Students See Benefits in Rocket Science Work Despite Mishap
The 20-foot-long tube carried high-definition cameras, various gauges and antennas from universities and community colleges. It was launched atop a rocket from the Wallops Flight Facility near Chincoteague Island and reached an altitude of about 95 miles before it descended toward the Atlantic Ocean.
NASA spokesman Keith Koehler said data was received from most of the experiments during the flight. A parachute was supposed to open around 20,000 feet, but it’s unclear if that happened, he said.
Typically, such payloads float in the ocean and are spotted by aircraft before a ship recovers them, Koehler said.
“We don’t know why we couldn’t find it,” he said. “It’s a big ocean. They’re going to have go through the data and determine what happened.”
Koehler said payloads have been lost before, although such events are unusual. For instance, he said NASA launched some instruments to study the atmosphere from Puerto Rico in the 1990s. They weren’t recovered until five years later when they washed ashore.
The launch carried experiments from eight universities and community colleges from across the United States, including Virginia Tech.
It’s unclear how much money was invested in the lost instrumentation. Schools including Virginia Tech paid NASA $26,000 to be part of the mission, with some of that money coming from grants and fundraising.
Virginia Tech students were studying the use of radio communications in space. The team received much of the data it needed during the rocket’s flight, although recovering the payload would have been ideal, said Jonathan Black, director of Virginia Tech’s Aerospace Systems Laboratory.
Black said the launches provide students with hands-on skills that are valuable in the real world. Losing a payload is part of that learning experience, he said.
One experiment package, called Project Imua, was created by 16 students from University of Hawaii’s community colleges in Honolulu, Windward, Kapiolani and Kauai. Eight students traveled to Virginia for the launch.
The group had spent the last year working on their package, which was outfitted with microcomputers and tiny cameras capable of capturing images and video.
Koehler said that data was received from most of the students’ experiments but the instruments were lost on the return.
Despite the mishap, the students say they are still grateful to have been part of the experience.
“I’m not entirely bummed, because it doesn’t speak to the whole experience. It just speaks to one part of it and we knew this was a possibility,” Windward Community College student Madori Rumpungworn told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “Overall, I’m still really happy and excited to have this opportunity and this whole experience.’’ Project manager Joe Ciotti, a professor at Windward Commu nity
College, said he doesn’t view the mission as a failure.
“This is real rocket science. There are great risks involved, calculated risks,” Ciotti said. “It’s part of the field that we’re in. If you’re not willing to take risks, then you’re not an explorer.”
Project Imua was funded by a two-year $500,000 grant awarded to the Hawaii NASA Space Grant Consortium by the NASA Space Grant Competitive Opportunity for Partnerships with Community Colleges and Technical Schools.