By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Can soybeans grow in the microgravity of space? Will their shoots and roots know up from down? And how will the answers to these questions help mankind’s efforts to explore the galaxy?
These are just some of the questions Waiakea Intermediate student Josh Ebesugawa hopes to nail down after an experiment he designed and prepared is fired into space, destined for the International Space Station.
Waiakea Intermediate is one of 17 schools across the country with the rare opportunity to participate in the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education’s Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP). It is also the first school in Hawaii to take part in the program.
The program invites schools to submit proposals for experiments, as well as secure valuable space at a cost of nearly $20,000 on board the SpaceX Dragon, the privately-owned, reusable cargo capsule contracted by NASA to resupply the space station and ferry experiments to and from Earth. Waiakea funded its participation through donations.
According to teacher Tabitha Booth, who helped to involve Waiakea in the SSEP, the price tag may be high, but the experience garnered by the students is near priceless.
“It’s about getting kids to experience what real scientists experience when working in the real world,” she said in late October. “They have to write a proposal, and only the best proposals are chosen, because using equipment, such as a big telescope, costs sometimes thousands of dollars.”
In November, students at the school who were willing to wake up very early in the morning were given the chance to come to school and participate in a live video feed with astronauts aboard the station, and to pose questions to them to prepare their own experiments.
Students at Waiakea submitted about 640 proposals, said Ebesugawa’s science teacher, Gregg Yonemori. Those proposals were whittled down by teachers to the top 25, which were then voted on by a panel of judges, who selected the top three entries. Those three were then sent on to the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education, where an overall winner was selected.
The two runner-up experiments included:
l How does microgravity affect basil’s growth? — by students Jacqueline Millard, Jodi Go and Auli‘i Maeda.
l Can earthworms survive in space and what is their reaction to microgravity? — by students Jace Nagao, Shaun Kojima, Kien Uyeda, and Wesley Amuimula.
Upon hearing that his experiment involving the growth of soybeans had been selected as the top finalist, Ebesugawa, 11, said he was very proud and excited. But, at the end of the day, it’s all about the science for the very serious and studious young man, who wants to be a scientist or a doctor.
“If we can grow plants in a space shuttle, we don’t have to keep sending up food, which is expensive,” he said.
He added that because plants convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, they could help solve the problem of having to pressurize oxygen in tanks for astronauts to breathe. These questions and more will have to be answered if man is to spread out and explore the universe, he said.
Ironically, Ebesugawa says that the thought of one day being able to explore space himself is a tad unsettling.
“I like space travel, but I’m also afraid of it. It’s scary. I’m afraid what could happen to (the ship),” he said.
Because room is at a premium on the space station, Ebesugawa said that he worked out a system of watering his soybeans. The experiments must be contained within small test tubes, so he enclosed glass tubes of water inside a larger plastic tube that can be bent. Astronauts will help to water his plants at regular intervals by snapping one of the glass vials and releasing the water for the plant.
After the experiments are flown into space — some time this spring, depending on ever-fluctuating flight schedules — they will be returned to their home schools and the students will then begin poring over the data.
Regardless of whether the experiments reveal any enlightening information, the experience of going through the selection and having the opportunity to participate in “real science,” is the true goal of the program, Yonemori said.
“They’re very fortunate to get to experience science in the real world,” he said. “They’ve done a lot of experiments before, but never like this.”
Email Colin M. Stewart at firstname.lastname@example.org.