Oakland Students' Worms Destroyed in Antares Rocket Explosion

When the unmanned rocket exploded Tuesday after launching from a NASA launchpad in Virginia, 5,000 of pounds of spacegear and supplies were incinerated inside a glowing ball of flames.

Also inside: a tube of red worms, the subject of some Oakland students' science experiment.

The squiggly critters, technically Eisenia fetida, had been on the Orbital Sciences' Antares rocket headed for the International Space Station, because they were part of a winning science proposal written by 6th graders at Oakland's Urban Promise Academy. The school is the first public school in Oakland to be accepted into the National Center for Earth and Science Education's Space Flight Student Experiments Program.

"Fortunately, there were no injuries," Urban Promise Academy Vice Principal Dennis Guikema said on Wednesday. "But our worms are, unfortunately, gone."

Much of the student body was gathered in the school gym, watching the rocket take off at 3:22 p.m. At first, no one could tell what was happening, and the kids all cheered when the spaceship took off. Then there was fire and smoke. "But it all was very confusing," Guikema said. "We hoped it was just excessive flare from the rocket."

Then, as the details began to unfold, the students and staff soon realized the spacecraft had actually blown up over Wallops Islands on Virginia's eastern shore. While no injuries were reported, it was the first catastrophic launch in NASA's commercial spaceflight program.

And some of that catastrophe included destroying everything inside the "Cygnus" capsule, which was carrying "classified cryptoequipment" for the six people living aboard the space station. And the explosion also destroyed the science experiments from 18 schools in North America.

Three 6th graders from Urban Promise Academy, Kevin Cruz, Cithlali Hernandez and Jose Morga, won the chance to have their experiment be launched into space. Their project was chosen last year by a review board at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum to see if worms can compost food waste into soil in "microgravity," or in space.

Their proposal was selected out of a total of 1,487 original submissions. The final 18 winners came from San Marino, Calif.; British Columbia, Canada; New York, Washington, D.C.; Michigan, New Jersey, Texas and beyond.

"It was difficult for them to come to grips with what had happened," Guikema said, recalling the conversation he had with the three students. "But they're amazing kids. It was a definite setback, but it didn't diminish their excitement."

He said that organizers have already called the school to say another launch is in the works.

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