On edge, a class waits for a rocket’s red glare

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule successfully launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Launch Complex 40 on Friday. Palmetto Scholars Academy finally made it into space, two years and three launches after their first attempt.

Joseph Garvey remembers the heat on his face and loudest sound he had ever heard.

On Oct. 28, 2014, an unmanned rocket en route to the International Space Station burst into a dazzling ball of fire seconds after liftoff at NASA’s Virginia launch facility. The spacecraft was carrying some 5,000 pounds of cargo, including a “fluid mixture enclosure” (a rocket scientist’s word for “test tube) belonging to Garvey and his classmates containing a science experiment they had hoped to test in space flight.

From a nearby beach in Wallops Island, Virginia, Garvey, then a sophomore at Palmetto Scholars Academy in North Charleston, watched — horrified — as the explosion scorched the evening sky, sending hours of hard work into a billowing plume of smoke.

“It was a shocking moment,” Garvey, now a junior, recalled recently. “It took days to process what happened.”

The Orbital ATK Antares rocket suffered an engine failure and crashed back down on the launch pad.

Through the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP), hundreds of students from around the country, including Garvey, have had the opportunity to design and propose their own experiments for testing hundreds of miles above the Earth’s surface. But unlike most students, Garvey and his team’s experiment was selected, among nearly 1,500 entries, for spaceflight. And then blown up. Twice.

After school Friday, students from faculty adviser Kellye Voigt’s mission design and robotics classes waited with bated breath in front of a YouTube live stream of the SpaceX CRS-8 mission launch, hoping that the third time’s the charm.

“Let’s place our bets now,” 17-year-old Matthew Bethea said, two minutes before takeoff.

“Ten bucks it’s going,” Voigt said.

In October 2014, hours after the rocket exploded, experts at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center contacted the Palmetto Scholars students and offered them help and encouragement. They advised the students to revise their experiment on “tin whiskers,” which are microscopic hair-like filaments that grow from tin soldering points on electronic circuits. They even donated samples of the Space Shuttle Endeavor that the students could use for their experiment.

But on June 28, the rocket carrying their experiment exploded again – this time, in the atmosphere above Cape Canaveral. The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket suffered an in-flight anomaly dumping its Dragon capsule and their experiment into the Atlantic.

Back at Palmetto Scholars Academy, T-minus 21 seconds before takeoff, Voigt pulled out a chair and took a seat in front of the interactive whiteboard playing a live stream of the launch.

“Happy, happy launch vibes,” she said.

The class started to count down.

“...Six, five, four, three, two, one.”

At precisely 4:43 p.m., the rocket rumbled and soared into the skyline. The class began pleading to the video feed.

“C’mon!”

“Go!”

“Please, Elon Musk,” Voigt said. “Get this thing going.”

Garvey’s co-investigator in the project, Rachel Lindbergh of Daniel Island, who has since graduated from Palmetto Scholars Academy and now attends the University of Chicago, watched the launch from Cape Canaveral. Eleven minutes after takeoff she texted Voigt.

“Picture perfect.”

Reach Deanna Pan at (843) 937-5764.