Northeast High's space students go to the moon

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

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