Failure to launch

Assistance needed: Student Jeremy Cruz explains the importance of the SPARC program. Northeast High School’s class of 1977 started a “Save SPARC” page on Facebook, which has raised $9,669 from 83 donors as of Tuesday afternoon. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

Some astronauts from Northeast High are stuck up in space and waiting to come home.

There was a catastrophe in December. Three of the astronauts who took a deadly virus to the International Space Station were killed when it got loose. The few survivors of that flight were told they’d have to wait until spring to come back down to Earth.

Those astronauts will have to keep waiting. The rescue mission has been scrubbed.

There really are no Northeast kids awaiting certain doom in the coldness of space because Space Research Center, or SPARC, missions all are virtual flights aimed at honing their science skills. However, there is nothing make-believe about the money problems.

There isn’t enough cash to keep SPARC flying. Mission Control and the Space Shuttle mockup that sit in the aerospace magnet school at Northeast along with a real Apollo space capsule will be dark this year.

SPARC, the only such program in the nation, isn’t the only after-school program that is shutting down. There isn’t enough money for any nonsports extracurricular activities at Northeast High. Sports, said principal Linda Carroll, are paid for directly by the school district.

That direct funding is what some of the SPARC students are hoping to get.

Students Jessica Hattina, Jeremy Cruz and Shareef Alwarasneh are asking for contributions from any alums, in fact, any residents who want to keep SPARC, a program that dates to the 1960s, flying — and improving.

SPARC is a community asset, said Cruz, who has written several of the scripts for the program’s fall and spring flights.

“This is a program where students are given the opportunity to work in large, organized groups and learn the value of teamwork,” Cruz said.

“It gives them the opportunity to learn of their primary interest that they may come to succeed later on in their careers. Whether their interests are with medical, engineering, computer science or aerospace divisions, Project SPARC offers the chance of first-hand learning experience before these students even enter college,” said Hattina, who has served as a student director and as flight spokeswoman.

SPARC should be familiar to Northeast Times readers because the newspaper routinely covers the program’s fall flight and spring overnight mission.

But SPARC is more than that.

SPARC has six subdivisions in which students can specialize: Flight, Medical, Computers, Administration, Engineering and Robotics.

Each of the subdivisions has responsibilities and activities outside of the flight. For example, the medical team will all become certified in CPR. The robotics team has multiple competitions in which to participate. Engineering has some in-house and some outer competitions in which to participate.

“Everyone cares and supports each other to the point where it is no longer an after-school club, but really a second family,” Cruz said.

Those bonds were apparent when it was announced SPARC would not operate this year, he said.

“There was such a burst of support when we found out SPARC was closing,” he said.

That backing came not just from current students, he said, but from alums, too. “They remember what great times SPARC gave them and how much work they put together as a connected group,” Cruz said.

The class of 1977 started a “Save SPARC” page on Facebook to raise money, Cruz said.

To donate, go to

The funding page will be open just until Jan. 13, Cruz said.

Carroll said those who want to contribute to keeping SPARC running should contact the NEHS alumni association, so they can direct where their money goes.

Carroll said SPARC, which involves more than 100 students, probably needs $30,000 to $40,000 to operate per year. That would pay for the two teachers and nurse who are part of the program and help upgrade the equipment, some of which Cruz said is really aging.

It’s a shame extracurricular activities were cut, Carroll said, because they really are part of the high school experience.

For the kids, “This is where they want their future to be,” she said.

The Facebook page started by former SPARC astronaut Burt Dicht pulled in thousands of dollars over a week broken up by the New Year’s holiday. The page went up Dec. 30.

On Tuesday, Dicht said the page raised $9,669 from 83 donors.

The 1977 grad had been enrolled in the aerospace magnet school since 10th grade. SPARC was a great experience, he said.

Dicht, who went on to a career as an engineer, said he and his classmates were thunderstruck by the announcement SPARC was shutting down.

“Collectively, we were saddened and shocked that such an important program was being canceled,” he stated in an email to the Northeast Times. “This reaction was coming from NEHS alumni who were not even part of SPARC. But they recognized that SPARC was an after-school program that was really special. So we were moved to action. We wanted to do something for the current and future students and we discussed a fundraising campaign.”

Dicht had seen SPARC’s virtual space flights stop before. When he was a senior, he was asked to be one of the astronauts for the 27th mission. At that time, he said, there had been no SPARC flights for more than seven years.

“The students did the work, everything from developing the flight plan, assembling the supplies needed for the flight, monitoring the flight systems and our astronaut vital signs. We had complete trust as we all learned to work as a team,” he said. “Flight 27 took place on 27–28 April, 1977 and the flight lasted 24½ hours and we completed 17 orbits.”

The rescue mission that had been planned for this April would have been SPARC’s 49th.

Current and former students are hoping that will be possible.

Dicht said the response to the Facebook page request for dollars to support SPARC was phenomenal.

“We started hearing from NEHS alumni as far back as Class of 61,” he said. “Former SPARC members started sharing their stories and offering testimonials on the Facebook page. … All of the donors are committed to saving a program whose impact extends well into a student’s life and career.”

Anyone interested in joining the real rescue mission — the one to save SPARC — can contact the Northeast High alumni association and visit

Carroll said the alumni association’s Joan Scheidecker could be contacted by email at ••

We have a problem: Student Jessica Hattina asks for contributions from any Northeast High School alumni who want to keep SPARC, an after school aerospace program that dates to the 1960s. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

We have a problem: Students are asking for contributions from any Northeast High School alumni who want to keep SPARC, an after school aerospace program that dates to the 1960s. Currently, there isn’t enough money for any nonsports extracurricular activities at Northeast High. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO