Fire! Emergency on board

Lauren Rooney, 16, at mis­sion con­trol dur­ing a SPARC emer­gency drill at North­east High School, Decem­ber 14, 2012, Phil­adelphia, Pa. (Maria Pouch­nikova)

A fire has erup­ted in space.

Four as­tro­nauts had to think fast as alarms soun­ded and their shuttle filled with smoke. Just mo­ments be­fore, they had been smil­ing, talk­ing and munch­ing on snacks, en­joy­ing the ride miles above the Earth.

They had been trained in how to handle an emer­gency, and they did. 

Then the lights went out. Back on Earth, mis­sion con­trol’s screens went dark.

“We have no visu­al,” one of the flight’s man­agers said. “Is any­one hurt?”

“Every­one’s fine,” came the reply.

“How did the fire start?” mis­sion con­trol asked as the event un­fol­ded last Fri­day morn­ing.

The as­tro­nauts answered and went about their busi­ness of re­turn­ing their mis­sion to nor­mal.

As­tro­nauts had to at­tend to a fire emer­gency, mis­sion spokes­wo­man Jes­sica Hat­tina told a crowd of stu­dents watch­ing the mis­sion from the Space Re­search Cen­ter in­side the Med­ic­al, En­gin­eer­ing and Aerospace Mag­net School.

Things go wrong dur­ing space mis­sions, but the fire was something that was planned. Flight man­agers knew it was go­ing to hap­pen. Hat­tina, 17, quietly had flipped a switch that star­ted “the fire” aboard the shuttle.

The emer­gency was part of a script writ­ten by Jeremy Cruz, 17, the mis­sion’s flight dir­ect­or. Oth­er man­agers knew it was go­ing to oc­cur and when. Shuttle pi­lot Bri­ana Fer­guson, 16; com­mand­er Jonath­an Seitz, 16; mis­sion spe­cial­ist Peter Cruz-Par­rilla, 14; and pay­load spe­cial­ist Shawn John­son, 15, wer­en’t in on that part of the minute-by-minute script, said Cruz.

Al­though mis­sion man­agers knew what they were sup­posed to do and say, the as­tro­nauts had to rely on their train­ing and im­pro­vise, Cruz said be­fore Hat­tina threw the switch.

The shuttle jock­eys handled it.

It wasn’t the first thing that had gone wrong that morn­ing, dir­ect­or Mar­garet Kar­p­in­ski said. There were oth­er prob­lems that wer­en’t in the script of the sim­u­lated mis­sion to re­pair a NASA weath­er sta­tion.

“It’s been hec­tic,” Kar­p­in­ski said Fri­day as ground con­trol got ready for the er­satz emer­gency.

A large screen didn’t work; a cam­era didn’t either. All those woes did was force the stu­dents to think on their feet and make things right.

“They have to learn to take care of prob­lems,” Kar­p­in­ski said earli­er last month.

The one-day mis­sion was set as a train­er for SPARC’s two-day spring flight. The mag­net school in­side North­east High has been send­ing kids on sim­u­lated space flights since the 1960s. The stu­dents go to Mars and they go to the moon.

“We are the only high school in the coun­try that does this,” Kar­p­in­ski said.

Early in Fri­day’s mis­sion, stu­dent as­tro­nauts fixed a hole in a weath­er satel­lite. A video of their work played for oth­er stu­dents all day.

Ro­bot­ics man­agers Josh Carey and Brad Jac­ob­son, both 17, demon­strated a re­mote-con­trolled ro­bot mov­ing items, and they gave oth­er stu­dents chances to try their hands at guid­ing it.

Stu­dents par­ti­cip­ated in the mis­sion in a vari­ety of roles. Along with seni­ors Carey and Jac­ob­son and 11th-graders Cruz and Hat­tina, ju­ni­or Shareef Awarasneh, 16, works in ad­min­is­tra­tion and ju­ni­ors Lawrence Delapena, 17, and Chris­ti­an Lat­tan­zio, 16, were in charge of com­puters. Samuel Bar­riskell, 16, and Tara Behr, 16, both ju­ni­ors, were the en­gin­eer­ing man­agers. 

Built in­to Cruz’s script was an ac­ci­dent that kept med­ic­al man­agers ju­ni­or Jenny Ho­ang, 16, and seni­ors Jes­sica Kir­gin, 17 and Kay­la Little, 17, busy. An as­tro­naut got a sim­u­lated in­jury.

Along with Kar­p­in­ski, SPARC pro­ject staffers were Joseph Con­nelly (en­gin­eer­ing), Anne John­son (med­ic­al) and Car­ole Niemiec (ro­bot­ics).

Stu­dents need four years of both math and sci­ence to get the mag­net school’s dip­loma, Karpink­si said, and they get to use their know­ledge while par­ti­cip­at­ing in SPARC mis­sions.

Math goes in­to ro­bot­ics, for ex­ample.

“But we’re not talk­ing up­per-level math,” Kar­p­in­ski said.

People need phys­ics for space travel. The med­ic­al group learns how to keep med­ic­al logs and take blood pres­sure read­ings. They get Red Cross cer­ti­fic­a­tions and learn CPR, she ad­ded.

“We have a sim­u­la­tion soft­ware pack­age,” Kar­p­in­ski said. “The stu­dents learn to take off and land suc­cess­fully.”

Many of the stu­dents who par­ti­cip­ated in last week’s mis­sion are SPARC vet­er­ans. Gradu­ate Ash­leigh Niemiec, now a col­lege stu­dent, re­turned to help out, too.

“A lot of these kids have done this now for two or three years,” Kar­p­in­ski said in an in­ter­view two weeks be­fore Fri­day’s flight.

But 20 stu­dents were new, Hat­tina said. Last week’s one-day mis­sion “is good prac­tice for the new kids,” Kar­p­in­ski said. 

Cruz has writ­ten oth­er flight scripts, Kar­p­in­ski said. Every single mo­ment of the flight is scrip­ted, Cruz ad­ded. 

After a flight, there’s a post-mortem.

“We ex­am­ine what happened, what can be done bet­ter, what went wrong,” Kar­p­in­ski said. “We change things.”

The ca­reer be­ne­fits for the stu­dents?

“They de­vel­op lead­er­ship abil­it­ies,” Karpink­si said. “When they leave us, they are ready to as­sume lead­er­ship roles.” ••

Re­port­er John Loftus can be reached at 215-354-3110 or

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