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Teaching students to shoot for the stars

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Until recently, hundreds of middle-school, high-school and college students in New Mexico sent experimental bizO-RobinsonAvila_Kevin_BizOpayloads to space every year on rockets launched from Spaceport America in southern New Mexico.

UP Aerospace provided the rockets and managed the launches, which were paid for by the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium at New Mexico State University through NASA grants and fundraising. The consortium provided the materials to teachers and students at schools statewide to design and build payloads, which were then selected on a competitive basis for inclusion on suborbital flights.

But since 2011, those annual launches have stopped, largely because NASA funding has dried up, said Patricia Hynes, executive director of the Space Grant Consortium.

A couple of student experiments did get onto a UP Aerospace rocket at the spaceport in June 2013 under NASA’s new Flight Opportunities Program, which pays commercial aerospace companies for suborbital launches to test new technologies in space. But the days of entire UP rockets filled with student payloads have come to an end unless alternative funding sources are found.

UP Aerospace President Jerry Larson, right, helps students dismantle the payload section of a rocket that carried science experiments into space from Spaceport America in 2011. The launch was made possible by a NASA grant program.(The Associated Press)

UP Aerospace President Jerry Larson, right, helps students dismantle the payload section of a rocket that carried science experiments into space from Spaceport America in 2011. The launch was made possible by a NASA grant program.(The Associated Press)

“We used to buy a rocket each year for students, but that hasn’t happened on a regular basis since 2011,” Hynes said. “The point was to provide unique and exciting opportunities for students while demonstrating to New Mexico educators that they could use the spaceport as a learning facility. Students and teachers loved it, and many educators want to continue doing it.”

With NASA facing stiff budget cuts in recent years, funding for educational programs has decreased, Hynes said. And while the NASA Flight Opportunities Program allows some university payloads to get on rockets, NASA prioritizes experiments that can advance technology.

“NASA is a mission agency and they’re flying the payloads and technologies that they need, not educational experiments,” Hynes said. “It’s their money and that’s understandable.”

To restart the annual flights requires support from state government and New Mexico’s public schools and universities, Hynes said. And that, in turn, requires government and educational leaders to see the spaceport as something more than an attraction for rich tourists.

“Our leaders need to see the spaceport as an opportunity for us to educate our students and give them a chance to work in this industry,” Hynes said. “We could provide programs for students to put projects together and send their experiments into space every year.”

The Space Grant Consortium did that three years in a row from 2009 to 2011, allowing more than 75 student experiments to fly to space on suborbital UP launches from the spaceport. Apart from paying for the rockets themselves, the Consortium raised money to provide payload materials and instructional guides to schools, plus buses for hundreds of students to travel from around the state to attend launches at the spaceport.

One rocket launch costs a minimum of $350,000, which is difficult for the Space Grant Consortium to raise on its own without NASA grants or other funding. But despite research universities and many public schools benefitting from consortium-sponsored UP launches, education and government officials have yet to show independent leadership in continuing the program.

“There’s a lack of leadership and vision on this issue,” Hynes said. “There’s no budget I’m aware of in the state to use the spaceport.”

That contrasts with initiatives in other states that also want to develop a commercial space industry. In Texas, for example, Gov. Rick Perry announced in September that the Texas Emerging Technology Fund and the University of Texas System would jointly contribute $9 million to support an educational partnership with Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, which is building a new orbital spaceport at Brownsville near the Gulf Coast. Through the partnership, students and faculty at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley will use the SpaceX facilities for training, scientific research and technology development.

New Mexico educators who have participated in consortium-sponsored UP launches say such programs provide a huge boon to STEM education in the state.

“It brings student education in math and science together with real-world applications,” said Stacy Rush, a chemistry and physics teacher at Hot Springs High School in Truth or Consequences.

Hot Springs students have flown experimental payloads on every consortium-sponsored rocket at the spaceport, benefitting about 60 students to date, Rush said. That includes an experiment last year to measure the effects of radiation on algae in space.

“They get lots of experience in everything from engineering and technology to research and planning, which helps them consider job opportunities they never thought of before,” Rush said. “And it’s so cool for them to build something with their own hands that actually flies into space and then analyze all the data.”

The New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology had made the educational flights a part of its outer space program, said Andrei Zagrai, an associate professor of mechanical engineering who worked with student teams to send sensors on two UP flights to detect structural problems or anomalies on the rocket.

“The payloads were built and designed by students,” Zagrai said. “We used it as an educational vehicle to study and learn about space systems.”

Given the lack of funding, spaceport Executive Director Christine Anderson said state leaders might consider more affordable alternatives, such as using model rockets that fly to 10,000 feet rather than a suborbital launch.

“We’d like to host at least one launch per year at the spaceport,” Anderson said. “That hands-on learning is so important for kids. My goal is for every student in New Mexico to at least get a field trip to the spaceport during their time in public school.”