Saturday, November 15, 2014

Oakland Students' Composting Worms Lost in Rocket Explosion

By Doug Oakley
Staff Writer
OAKLAND -- It will be awhile now before students at an Oakland middle school will know if red worms can turn garbage into compost -- in space -- after their experiment onboard an unmanned rocket blew up Tuesday in Virginia along with a payload of supplies headed to the International Space Station. 

"I was kind of surprised about what happened with the explosion," said 12-year-old Cithlali Hernandez, a student at Urban Promise Academy, whose three-person team devised a winning experiment that was chosen to be on the space station. "I was thinking that the worms probably died." 

The rocket capsule was loaded with 5,000 pounds of experiments and equipment for NASA, including student experiments, 32 mini research satellites, food and a meteor tracker. 

Hernandez, who likes to play soccer and hang with her friends, said the purpose of the experiment was to see if worms could be used to turn astronauts' garbage on the space station into compost. 

No people died in the explosion of Orbital Sciences' unmanned Antares rocket that blew up moments after liftoff from the Virginia coast. 

Urban Promise assistant principal Dennis Guikema said Hernandez and her team has already been assured they will get another chance at sending red worms into space, but they just don't know when. 

The school put up $20,000 it got from fundraising and from a school district grant to allow all 324 students in teams of three and four to design experiments to go into space, said Principal Claire Fisher. Hernandez' team, whose members had to write a seven page paper about the relevance and practical application of red worms composting garbage in space, was judged a winner by scientists across the country, Fisher said. 

"So we were pretty disappointed and a little shocked when we found out the rocket exploded," Fisher said. 

Guikema said the entire school was watching the launch at 3:22 p.m. Tuesday on a big screen in the school auditorium. It was not immediately clear that the rocket exploded from the video and kids were dismissed, although teachers suspected something was wrong, he said. 

"After the kids left, everyone started checking their phones for news and then it became apparent," he said. 

Guikema said he doesn't know how long it will be now before the experiment from Urban Promise gets launched into space again. He hopes Hernandez and her team are still at the school when it happens. 

"Losing the experiment has also been a good lesson," Guikema said. "It's an opportunity for the students to reflect on it and to learn what it means to have a setback. And the whole school is grateful no one got injured." 

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