As several Santa Monica students have learned, getting to space isn’t an easy endeavor.

About six months ago, the SpaceX rocket carrying their science experiment to the International Space Station exploded shortly after launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

It was an unexpected learning experience to be gained from the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program, a national educational initiative that aims to promote science through real-world application and interdisciplinary collaboration.

The local students whose project was aboard the ill-fated Falcon 9 are now awaiting a re-launch of the mission. Their experiment will likely be sent to space on or after Jan. 14, although a final date has not yet been confirmed.

“We’re just in a holding pattern,” Susan Stivers said.

Stivers, a former English teacher at Lincoln Middle School, was involved in the program when then-eighth-grade students Samuel Buckley-Bonanno, Adam Chamas, Charlie Gooding and Shrayes Raman designed an experiment involving paper chromatography – a method for separating chemicals and other substances.

Now retired, Stivers is serving as a volunteer coordinator for the local experiment affected by the failed mission so program leaders Gretchen Gies-McLaughlin and Marianna O’Brien can focus on working with current Lincoln students on the next spaceflight mission.

“Because I was their teacher,” Stivers said, “I’m just following Mission 7 to the end.”

O’Brien and the former Lincoln students — most of them now enrolled at Santa Monica High School — could begin reassembling their project as soon as the second week of January, Stivers said, and they’ll follow strict protocol for how to put it together.

Stivers is serving as the point of contact between the national program managers and the local students.
“She has been our lifesaver,” Gies-McLaughlin said.

The eventual launch of the rocket will provide a measure of closure for a campus where regular classes were not in session at the time of the June 28 mishap.

According to Gies-McLaughlin, the students were initially disappointed by the outcome. But they were excited that SpaceX offered them a tour of their facility, including their manufacturing and design spaces. The students learned about what happened in the failed launch and saw the rocket that will be used for a future mission.

“Science is a calculated risk,” Gies-McLaughlin said. “There’s trial and error. We want to make sure that we realize that not everything is a success. Sometimes we learn more from our failures than our successes.”

Even before the failed launch, the students spent hours brainstorming, researching and fine-tuning their project. They also did close readings of highly technical science documents, learned how to write scientific proposals and made documentaries about their experiments.

Stivers said the student spaceflight program helps students develop their science and communication skills while also encouraging critical thinking and teamwork.

“It gives the kids an immense confidence,” she said. “It makes them feel like they’re players out in the world, that they can do whatever they set their minds to. You can take complex materials and make them meaningful.”