By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun
2:59 PM EDT, July 7, 2012
Whatever goes up must come down — just not always in the condition one hoped.
That's the lesson Paul Warren, the 16-year-old from Maryland whose science experiment was launched into space in May, learned Friday when the materials of his project — test tubes, packing liquids and roundworms by the thousand — returned after having spent nearly seven weeks aboard the International Space Station.
The experiment, he learned, had never been activated.
"I don't know if I've ever been this frustrated," he said shortly after opening the box he had been waiting for since it landed in Kazakhstan on Sunday. "It might have been some kind of mechanical malfunction. I don't know if there's anyone to be blamed. But this is still hard."
The son of an astrophysicist in Charles County, Warren earned the right to have his project flown into space on a rocket built by SpaceX, a commercial aeronautics firm. A panel of scientists named it one of the 15 best in the country in a competition sponsored by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education, a nonprofit that gives students a chance to conduct research as professionals do.
In Warren's experiment — formally known as "Physiological effects of microgravity and increased levels of radiation on wild type and genetically engineered Caenorhabditis elegans" — he had hoped to study the behavior of the quickly-reproducing roundworms in space as a way of glimpsing how space travel might affect human beings in the future.
Scientists at the National Institutes of Health, at the University of Nottingham in England, and at two research centers in Japan helped Warren design his project, which was launched aboard the first commercially made spacecraft ever to deliver a payload to the station.
Per instructions from NanoRacks, the Houston company that works with NASA to integrate such deliveries, Warren packed his worms, or C. elegans, into a glass ampule, or tube, then packed that tube into a larger one containing a liquid "growth medium" for the worms. An astronaut aboard the space station was to crack the outer ampule in a way that would release the worms into the surrounding liquid.
It never happened.
"We don't have enough data yet to know what went wrong," said NCESSE director Jeff Goldstein, who developed the nationwide competition with NASA scientists and educators across the country. "We've sent emails to all the parties involved, but we can't say yet. I can tell you we're taking this every bit as seriously as we would if Paul were a professional scientist."
It was unclear whether the other 14 experiments on board had similar difficulties. Goldstein said room aboard the next SpaceX launch to the space station, Mission 2, is already taken, but that he's "confident" Warren will get a chance to try again aboard Mission 3 next spring.
"That would still be a great opportunity, but this has to be tough for Paul," he said.
Despite his disappointment, Warren, a rising senior at Henry E. Lackey High School in Indian Head, was already trying to put the setback in perspective.
Conducting experiments on a spacecraft is hard, he said, owing to lack of space, loud noise and many other factors. And NanoRacks heat-seals two bags to the outside of all experimental tubes, adding a layer of protection he guesses might have made the package harder to handle than expected.
If he sounded like a young man trying to suppress some initial bitterness, Warren, who is also the president of his school's Key Club, a community service organization, was already taking note of one lesson.
"This is one of those things I have to learn, and I'm sure I'll look back on it the rest of my life," he said. "Things don't always go according to plan."
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