Coal-county students conduct science at International Space Station in 2012-2013
October 30th, 2012

Students of the mountainous Southwestern Virginia school districts of Russell and Wise Counties are serious about conducting science experiments aboard the orbiting International Space Station, and setting an example to be emulated by the other one-million school youth now in Virginia’s 132-school districts.

The interest in space – and in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM classes – really took off last January 26 when Wise County sponsored a live downlink video chat with astronauts aboard the International Space Station. Hosted locally by NASA astronaut Leland Melvin and private space explorer Anousheh Ansari, the event drew 5,000 Southwestern Virginia students. The science fair included a full-scale mock-up of the ISS Robonaut-2, Apollo 14 moon rock, numerous other NASA-sponsored exhibits, and Skype appearances by Gov. Bob McDonnell, Del. Terry Kilgore and U.S. Sen. Mark Warner.

In the aftermath, the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education selected Russell and Wise public school districts to be the first two in Virginia to participate in the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program. The effort gained over $40,000 in backing from several local and state foundations, businesses and individuals, including Virginia Chamber of Commerce members.

The program, sponsored by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education and NanoRacks, under a Space Act Agreement with NASA, will use the International Space Station as a national laboratory.

Russell County Public Schools First to Space:

A Lebanon High School team won the Russell County Public Schools student science proposal to fly the first science experiment to the International Space Station earlier this year. The experiment launched aboard the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft on October 7 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The Lebanon High School science team attended the Florida rocket launch, meeting with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

The first Virginia student experiment will remain on the space station until November 19, and then return by way of the Russian Soyuz spacecraft escorted by three astronauts to Kazakhstan. The zero-gravity experiment will ship to the Lebanon, Va. students to commence post-flight science analysis.

Wise County Perhaps 1st to Launch from Wallops:

Meanwhile, Wise County students in grades five through 12 are working in teams to design experiment proposals to submit to a review board consisting of University of Virginia’s College at Wise Science Department professors and NASA Langley Research Center scientists and engineers to narrow down the selection to three from among the numerous submissions. The final experiment proposal will come following a review by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education and a NASA safety review.

The Wise County student science experiment will likely be the first to go to space from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops Island, Va. aboard the new Antares rocket and the Cygnus spacecraft in April 2013. Coming from the mountains of western Virginia to the Eastern Shore, the Wise County students hope to celebrate the launch with Gov. McDonnell.

The Wise County experiment will most likely return to Earth aboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft in the late spring. Both coal-county school districts will send their winning science teams to a Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum science confab in July 2013 to present their space science experiment results.

Coal-producing counties confronting the future:

Coal-producing county educational leaders are confronting the future by boosting STEM-education in an emerging era of seeking new options to coal-related employment. The fact that there are 3.3 jobs available in math and science fields for every unemployed person in Virginia, while there are 2.1 unemployed for every non-STEM job opening, inspires local efforts to boost STEM-education.

In recent years, the communities have sponsored zero-gravity parabolic flights for public school teachers; and, sponsored trips for local students to visit the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton and NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Accomack County. The community has sponsored quarterly student rocket build-to-launch sports rocket competitions under the National Rocketry Association involving hundreds of students; and, ground schools-to-first airplane pilot opportunities for students at the Lonesome Pine Regional Airport, in cooperation with the Virginia Department of Aviation.

Regional students have participated in planet and star cluster observation parties at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise new observatory, while middle school students operated Grail spacecraft cameras to study the lunar surface while orbiting the moon. Numerous local high school and college students have studied satellite remote sensing and geoinformatics through a local NASA DEVELOP research group centered at the Wise County Courthouse.

Students at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise are in a fall 2012 honors course “space commerce.” Guest lecturers include luminaries within the commercial space industry and NASA. The focus is on how entrepreneurs are planning to make space a viable economy in the 21st century, ranging from commercial satellite launches from Virginia’s spaceport; to space research aboard human habitats in orbit; to mining the moon and asteroids for precious commodities.

Virginia SAT-1:

The Southwestern Virginia space science education leaders are discussing the possibility of collaboration among the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, Mountain Empire Community College and Morehead State University’s Space Science Center in Kentucky to build a nano-satellite to launch from the International Space Station in 2015, already dubbed “Virginia SAT-1”.

Some in the coalfields see a possible nexus between the scholarly academic communities in aerospace, software engineering, earth sciences with the commercial space launch carriers operating from Virginia’s fledgling but growing spaceport. The example for Virginia to seek to mimic is Kentucky Space, collaboration among Kentucky colleges and universities to conduct significant space science research and operate Nano-Satellites.

Globally-renowned Professor Bob Twiggs, the so-called grandfather of the NanoSat, is already teaching physics at Wise County’s Central High School, (via Skype from Morehead State University). In preparation of the eventuality that coal-county students will, not only, want to conduct space station science experiments while in high school, but to fly their own remote controlled spacecraft during their soon-to-be future college years, Twiggs, contributes his time.

The students touched with the experience of placing science experiments aboard the International Space Station from a spaceport – or in years to come operating their own space Nano-Satellite – will never be the same. Such once in a lifetime opportunities may inspire the lives of many generations to come.

Initial results:

Already, students-turned-young professionals from the region, involved in some of the previous earth and space science programs, have made a significant mark: earning advanced degrees in medicine, law, geology, criminal justice, geoinformatics, mathematics, computer science, earth science, education and business administration and space science studies from various universities, including Harvard Medical School.

It is a life-changing experience for those opting to dedicate themselves to scholarly STEM-related endeavors. Young professionals are coming from the Appalachian region where many in the nation would least expect it, save perhaps, Homer Hickam, author of the bestselling book “Rocket Boys” and portrayed in the hit 1999 movie “October Sky.”

Virginia Chamber of Commerce members, like the Southwestern Virginia Technology Council, Dominion Resources, Alpha Natural Resources, Northrop Grumman, CGI, and the many other businesses contributing to the STEM effort, merit a hat tip for supporting the next generation of explorers. The private sector has a huge stake in developing a strong STEM-educated workforce for the decades ahead.

Hon. Jack Kennedy, Clerk of Court for Wise County and Norton, chairs the Virginia Chamber of Commerce Transportation Subcommittee on Virginia’s Spaceport. He publishes the popular blog Spaceports. Contact him or 276.328.6111