The results are in from a Vancouver Island high school project that saw five students awarded the chance to send a scientific experiment to the International Space Station.
The project, dubbed ‘Sprouts in Space,’ aimed to grow alfalfa sprouts in space to explore alternate forms of nutrition for astronauts on long space flights.
Marco Ioffredi, Victor Kamel, Robert Lachance, Alexander Marshall and Filipe Pereira are students from Ballenas Secondary School in Parksville. Their project was selected by a committee of NASA employees, SpaceX employees and academia from different universities for the chance to be part of a launch to the International Space Station.
The sprouts are now back from their journey, and Kamel says the results have been positive.
“We were really excited to see that we actually did see some growth. Out of the 10 seeds that we sent up, actually five of them grew. Which is a really good result,” he said.
“It’s really hard to predict how everything’s going to grow because water doesn’t behave in the same way. There’s a very high possibility that it could be damaged when going up, because there’s a lot of turbulence when the rocket is launching, and we had really no way to see how they would react until the actual thing. So it was very exciting to see that there was growth, and it succeeded.”
The students chose alfalfa because of its quick growth rate, and also efficiency in terms of on-board storage for future space missions. One pound of alfalfa seeds can produce 10 pounds of edible plant matter.
The students had the idea to grow food after finding there wasn’t much research in the way of growing nutrient-rich plants in space.
“When you’re going for a long term space flight, like going to Mars for example, I know we’re moving towards that, you really need to have good sustainable food. You can’t just bring it up at the beginning, because that’s a lot of extra weight. That equates to a lot of extra fuel, and less other stuff you can bring,” said Kamel.
“If you can grow your own food while you’re out there, it’s a lot more efficient, and it helps with a lot of micro-gravity related illnesses, like osteoperosis and those kinds of stuff, muscle dystrophy. Just having those nutrients is really important for the astronauts.”
The group orchestrated the experiment from idea inception all the way to scientific proposal, and then execution. Kamel says was a lot of trial and error, but worth it.
The students, alongside teacher Carl Savage, went down to Florida intending to watch the launch of the project. Unfortunately, due to weather and mechanical delays, they didn’t get to see it take off. Kamel and Savage say the trip was still fun and educational regardless.
The sprouts made it to space eventually after two delays of the launch, and the students were able to watch on livestream.
Kamel had no idea at the start of his Grade 11 year that he would soon be taking part in such a big scientific event.
“It was kind of surreal, because you really don’t expect that. Maybe at the beginning of the year I wouldn’t have expected that by now I would have had an experiment that went up to space, and astronauts interacted with it, and it came down, and it was successful. It’s really amazing how that can happen,” he said.
The other four students involved have all headed off to post-secondary. Kamel says he plans on doing the same, and will probably be pursuing something STEM related. At the moment he’s thinking computer science or engineering.
Whatever he chooses to pursue, this kind of experience will be a major boon to his application.
“Imagine that on your resume. Eighteen years old or 17 years old and you get to put down that you’ve had an experiment on the International Space Station,” said Savage.
Savage and Kamel expressed their gratitude to the Parksville community and beyond for helping fundraise so that the team was able to go down to Florida.
“They always say, it takes a village to raise a child. For projects like this, it definitely is true. We need more of the village to be working with our schools nowadays, because the education system has to change. The world is changing — the education system has to change with it,” said Savage.
Kamel said the experience was life-changing, and he’s enthusiastic to continue down this road.
“I’m definitely a lot more interested in science, and in doing these kinds of experiments in general. It’s something maybe I want to continue doing in the future. It really had a big impact in terms of how I see my community, and how I see scientific research in general. Because you can really see the importance,” he said.