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NASA's Version of a Life Lesson Involves Blowing Up Students' Experiments Twice

If at first you don't succeed, keep building your experiment until it doesn't blow up on its way to space.
Screengrab: YouTube

It has not been a wonderful couple months for teaching children the joys of spaceflight. On the other hand, we've done a pretty good job of instilling the soul-crushing reality that life is a slog in which you'll face disappointment after disappointment.

In October, an International Space Station-bound rocket carrying a handful of science experiments designed and built by grade school students blew up on the launch pad. Some of those students managed to rebuild their projects and secured a spot on the SpaceX resupply mission Sunday. You already know how this story ends: Kaboom, again.


Michael Suffredini, NASA's ISS program manager, was asked at a press conference Sunday how he felt about the students' projects getting lost for a second time. His response? You'll be alright, kiddos.

"You know, [the disappointment] is true for all of us, right? These young people are learning a valuable lesson," he said. "It not only applies in spaceflight but applies in life as well, that you do have setbacks but you know, they can be recovered from, and you just keep trying."

"It's what you do after you have to face that adversity that defines what you're going to be able to do and I think that's a really important lesson for these kids," he added.

Suffredini's response isn't really that callous, considering the circumstances. He said NASA would help them rebuild experiments for a third time, and he hopes that eventually we'll learn once and for all whether composting works as well in space as it does on Earth.

As Suffredini mentioned, schoolchildren aren't the only ones who are upset here. SpaceX, obviously, is bummed that its rocket exploded. The astronauts on the ISS are missing out on supplies, along with two sweet new Hololens augmented reality devices, and will have to shift to more of a subsistence-type existence as experimental activities on the space station will slow down for a time.

The rocket also blew up the nonprofit Story Time From Space's self-funded suite of experiments that were designed to get kids on Earth excited about science. Earlier this year, that nonprofit sent five children's books to the station, where astronauts read them in videos taped for kids on Earth. The group is currently crowdfunding replacement experiments.

"The next phase of Story Time From Space was to have the ISS astronauts conduct and videotape educational demonstrations … to complement the science concepts found in the Story Time From Space books," the nonprofit said in an emailed statement. "These nine experiments focus on: free fall, orbit, heat transfer, light, human effects, surface tension, buoyancy, pendulous motion and balance."

Everyone at NASA, then, is kind of bummed about Sunday's crash. At the very least, SpaceX and NASA can point to the cruel realities of rocket science and engineering, rather than the cruelty of human nature.

Somehow, watching your experiment blow up twice feels a little easier to stomach for a fourth grader than, say, turning your innocuous state bird legislation into a chance to talk about abortion, as happened to a group of fourth graders in New Hampshire earlier this year.

"Hopefully, this will be a positive lesson for them in the end," Suffredini said. "It'll have a big impact on them and it's hard on them I know, because it's hard on me."