HomeNewsNortheast’s SPARC program takes flight

Northeast’s SPARC program takes flight

Northeast High School seniors Shareef Alwarasneh, 18; Jeremy Cruz, 18; Jenny Hoang, 17; Jessica Hattina, 18; Christian Lattanzio, 18; Rachel Buttry, 17, and James Elder, 18.

There are caves on the moon. Sounds sort of spooky, but the “lava tubes” formed by ancient volcanoes provide great protection from the exterrestrial elements for Northeast High’s astronauts. A lunar cave can be fashioned into a home far, far away from home.

Last Thursday and Friday, those astronauts from the Space Research Center inside the Medical, Engineering and Aerospace Magnet School in Northeast built a permanent habitat in a moon cave they hope will be the beginning of a permanent lunar colony.

This year’s mission went into space a little later than usual, but it almost didn’t take off at all. Students involved in SPARC have gone, virtually speaking, to the moon, Mars and the International Space Station during the program’s more than 50 years at Northeast High. This year, it looked like they were going to be confined to the third rock from the sun. It wasn’t Earth’s gravity that seemed likely to keep them out of space, but the gravity of the school system’s financial crunch. Funds to all nonsports extracurricular activities were cut earlier this year, but the school’s alumni and Northeast residents reached down into the sock and came up with more than $20,000 to keep SPARC flying — and improving.

This year’s flight began last Thursday at 8:30 a.m. with an Ares I rocket launch that took astronauts Jonathan Seitz, commander; Leon Frame, pilot; Kevin Feng, mission specialist; and payload specialist Elizabeth Mekler to the moon.

Every mission is heavily scripted so everyone knows what is supposed to happen and when — from liftoff Thursday to splashdown Friday. The mission script, written by flight manager Jeremy Cruz and retired teacher and Air Force veteran Jim Lynch, traditionally includes some sort of surprise emergency that is really not much of a surprise to anyone.

This year, a medical emergency involved astronaut Seitz going into shock, said medical managers Jenny Hoang and Shareef Alwarasneh. Mekler, guided by the Earth-bound medical team, brought Seitz out of shock so they could complete their mission and head home.

The script used last week was a new one and abandoned a plot thread that began during the one-day SPARC flight in the fall. Some of the astronauts “died” during that flight to the International Space Station and others remained, awaiting to be rescued during the spring mission.

“We don’t talk about that,” Cruz joked, and Hoang wisecracked that the government has paid off the students to be quiet.

For seven SPARC veterans, last week’s flight was the last mission of their Northeast High years. Cruz, Hoang, Alwarasneh, Jessica Hattina, Christian Lattanzio, James Elder and Rachel Buttry will graduate this year.

That the program’s spring mission is an overnighter always has made it a little more fun for the students. Seventeen students, including the astronauts and all mission managers, stayed in and around mission control overnight. Sounds like fun for teens, but the whole business required a lot of work for the astronauts, SPARC spokeswoman Hattina, administration manager Alwarasneh, computer managers Lattanzio and Tyler Mallon, engineering managers Elder and Buttry, flight manager Cruz, Robotics manager Prem Patel and medical managers Hoang and Alwarasneh.

SPARC is a program that belongs to the students, but they get some guidance from SPARC’s director Joseph Connelly, medical division supervisor Anne Johnson and robotics division adviser Carole Niemiec. ••

Elizabeth Mekler, 16, and Jonathan Seitz, 17, perform their space duties during a simulation at SPARC.

Leon Franne, 17 (left), and Kevin Feng, 17, are shown inside the space shuttle mock-up at Northeast High School’s SPARC program. JOHN LOFTUS AND MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTOS

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