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Northeast High’s space students go to the moon

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Some Northeast High students went to the moon this week. The trip wasn’t just for laughs, but they had a few getting there and back. And, since nobody died, we are happy to report the lunar mission ended on an up note.

Those in a space capsule splashed down safely and the students in a shuttle touched down perfectly, said Margaret Karpinski, director of the Northeast High School Medical, Engineering and Aerospace Magnet School and its Space Research Center, or SPARC.

And after their overnighter in space or working ground control, the kids cleaned up, ate up any leftover food and went home.

That was in the script for a mission that never left the high school’s grounds. It was all a simulation — even down to the moment pilot Jason Jiang seemed to have trouble breathing in a lunar module because he had an allergic reaction to some plants that an earlier mission had started growing on the moon.

This was SPARC’s 47th mission. Last year, the students went to Mars. This year’s simulation was a return trip to the moon, which was the destination in 2010. Some of the students who participated this year are veterans of earlier missions.

Liftoff was 9 a.m. on Monday, April 30, and all six astronauts — Tommy Tan, Jenny Hoang, Sandy Cao, Jiang, Jonathan Seitz and Joshua Jose — were back on Earth by the end of the school day on May 1, Karpinski said.

One hundred and twenty students were involved in the simulated space voyage, Karpinski said. The students who manned ground control rotated in shifts throughout the school days. Seventeen, including the six astronauts, stayed overnight at the school during the mission, she said.

Jessica Hattina was the mission spokeswoman. Cindy La served as the administration manager and as a medical manager along with Kimberly McIllmurray. Nicholas Delapena and Christian Lattanzio were the computer managers. Kevin Lu and Sam Barriskell were the engineering managers.

Jeremy Cruz, the flight management manager, wrote the script for the mission, Karpinski said. Joshua Carey built Sparcy, the lunar robot, and fellow robotics manager Brad Jacobson operated it.

Jacobson and Carey were astronauts during last year’s mission to Mars. Both McIllmurray and La were part of previous missions, too.

It was during the overnight stint that “we saw some space mice” roaming around, McIllmurray joked.

Space — even the space inside a high school — can be a little dull. Some of the students spent time watching a soap opera. Another made his own video — a slow-motion slapstick, literally, of slapping himself.

During the mission, Cao and Jiang went to the lunar surface to check on some plants that had been left behind during the 2010 mission, and that’s when Sparcy was put to work moving a box with some tools.

Since the idea is to simulate space flight, even the problems that could occur, the mission script included an emergency. On May 1, Jiang acted out an allergic reaction to some of the plants in the lunar module and had to be saved by medicine administered by Cao. During the 2010 mission, one of the shuttle astronauts appeared to be choking and the others onboard had to perform the Heimlich maneuver.

Only a few of the students knew that was going to happen, Karpinski said. It was a test of how the astronauts and their team back on Earth would react.

That wasn’t the first time the script called for something to go wrong. Karpinski said there was a communications blackout on April 30 that forced mission control to initiate the backup communications system. Also, Sparcy had some problems navigating the lunar landscape. (Well, OK, it fell off a ledge in the flooring near the capsule.)

SPARC has been at Northeast since the 1960s. The program is run for and by the students. The program’s building is more than a quarter-century old and is located on school grounds.

The 2012 lunar mission was dedicated to Capt. Chris Ferguson, a Northeast Philadelphia native and captain of NASA’s last shuttle mission, as well as his crew, Doug Hurley, Sandra Magnus and Rex Walheim.

Reporter John Loftus can be reached at 215–354–3110 or jloftus@bsmphilly.com

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