Student experiment, patch design finally flown into space

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published January 21, 2015

MADISON HEIGHTS — NASA researchers at the International Space Station high above Earth now have their hands on a science experiment conceived by four girls at Wilkinson Elementary School, part of Madison District Public Schools, as well as a patch design for an astronaut suit, designed by a boy at the same school.

The goods were carried aboard the SpaceX Dragon, a privately funded craft that launched Jan. 10 and arrived at the International Space Station the morning of Jan. 12.

NASA contracts with SpaceX to deliver payloads to and from the space station. SpaceX was founded by Elon Musk, CEO and chief product architect of Tesla Motors.

The flight carrying the science experiment and patch design was originally meant to take place Oct. 27, only to be delayed to Oct. 28 when a ship at sea wandered into the zone where debris would fall. And then on Oct. 28, hearts were broken when the unmanned rocket exploded during takeoff at the launch site in eastern Virginia.

“The experience has been an emotional up and down,” said Madison Superintendent Randy Speck. “But since the rocket exploded in October, from that point to now, the experiment and the mission patch have gathered a lot of attention.”

Only 18 projects were chosen, out of nearly 1,500 nationwide. It was all part of the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP), backed by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education, in partnership with NanoRacks LLC.

The next closest school to have an experiment chosen for the flight was St. Monica Catholic in Kalamazoo.

The four girls behind the award-winning project are all recent arrivals from Iraq, having been in the U.S. between eight months and two years now. They fled their homeland to escape religious persecution.

And yet, despite the fact that their world was turned upside down and their education was interrupted, and despite the fact that they’re in a whole new world and still learning English, these four girls had already created something good enough for NASA.

“All of them are exceptional kids,” Angel Abdulahad, the enrichment teacher at Wilkinson Middle School who oversaw the projects, previously said. “They’re all unique. I really think they’re superstars in the making. I really see each and every one of them doing great things in their future.”

The students are Regina Alsabagh and Farah Sabah, both 14, and Maryam Kafra and Israa Alfadhli, both 13. Their stories before arriving in America are harrowing.

“We lived in fear (in Iraq) because we thought we would be punished for anything we would say,” Sabah said during the original launch attempt in October, with Abdulahad translating. She said her family decided it was time to leave Iraq when their business was blown up by a bomb.

Alsabagh and her family are Chaldean Catholic. They left Iraq when someone came into their home and threatened them because they weren’t Muslim.

In the case of Alfadhli, a Muslim, her father was threatened for refusing to make her cover up when she was 8 years old. The intimidation continued until they finally said enough is enough.

These are just a few examples of the situations that compelled their families to come to America. Many things were new to them when they arrived stateside, like how to use a touchscreen. The fact that they’re still learning English meant the students had to do the research for the project in Arabic, first, and then translate it into English.

They started work on the project in February 2014. Most schools had already started work on their projects in September 2013. The girls’ experiment will explore how iodine tablets can cleanse water contaminated by E. coli in a zero-gravity environment. Back on Earth, the plan is to conduct a similar experiment in normal gravity, and compare and contrast their results with findings from the International Space Station.

They nearly lost all of their work when their computer crashed two days before the submissions were due, but they put in the extra hours after school and were able to make back all their lost ground and then some.

The patch design, meanwhile, was created by Tanner Barndollar, another student at Wilkinson Middle School. The patch represented many things, including the school and the city of Madison Heights. Barndollar was one of eight students chosen from more than 51,000, at more than 140 schools across the U.S., Canada and Great Britain.

The perseverance of everyone involved has attracted national attention, especially the four girls from Iraq.

“The young ladies who are refugees have been featured on national newscasts and conducted interviews all over the world. They’ve even received letters from young children as far away as California, and the story has been told all throughout the Iraqi community,” Speck said. “And so the last two months, even though it has been an emotional rollercoaster, has given them an additional opportunity for the story these young ladies have, which is really a message of hope. And this extra time has been hugely beneficial in getting that message of hope out there.”