Space calamity

  • The infected astronaut Leon Frame, payload specialist, is leaving the shuttle and headed to the International Space Station for medical testing. BILL ACHUFF / FOR THE TIMES

  • Space pioneers: Commander Ramon Contreras, top left, and Medical Specialist Emily Gonzalez, students at the Medical, Engineering and Aerospace Magnet School at Northeast High, simulated danger during a virtual outer space mission. BILL ACHUFF / FOR THE TIMES

Some high school kids saved the world last Fri­day. It wasn’t the first time. Three of them died do­ing it, and it wasn’t the first time for that, either.

In late April, stu­dents at the Med­ic­al, En­gin­eer­ing and Aerospace Mag­net School at North­east High des­troyed a mile-wide as­ter­oid that was headed for Earth. Last week — on Fri­day the 13th, no less — a team of as­tro­nauts from the school’s Space Re­search Cen­ter, or SPARC, took a deadly vir­us to the In­ter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion so sci­ent­ists could find a cure.

It’s a good thing the vir­us was taken to the ISS. It got loose, and people died. Two are stuck up in space un­til spring. Pretty scary — even though nobody ac­tu­ally left the school’s Gl­end­ale Av­en­ue build­ing. Yes, it was all make-be­lieve danger dur­ing a vir­tu­al mis­sion in vir­tu­al space, but the ex­cite­ment was real.

The pur­pose of the SPARC flight to the ISS was to study the vir­us un­der quar­ant­ined con­di­tions, said Joe Con­nelly, SPARC’s new pro­ject dir­ect­or. “The vir­us has the po­ten­tial to cure ge­net­ic dis­orders such as cyst­ic fibrosis,” he told the North­east Times. “However, it also has the po­ten­tial to des­troy the hu­man pop­u­la­tion of the plan­et.”

Con­nelly said the team of as­tro­nauts at­temp­ted to study the vir­us in space “in or­der to min­im­ize the risk to hu­man life.”

So, it was kind of pro­act­ive save-the-world stuff. Well, un­til things star­ted go­ing wrong — in a big way. The flight star­ted nor­mally enough. The as­tro­nauts were told they were head­ing for the space sta­tion to make a de­liv­ery. They were not told what they were car­ry­ing.

A large and un­ex­pec­ted sol­ar flare dis­rup­ted com­mu­nic­a­tions between Earth and the as­tro­nauts. Un­known to the as­tro­nauts, the flare also had caused some of the vir­us to es­cape from its con­tain­er. When ju­ni­or Le­on Frame, the pay­load spe­cial­ist, checked on it, he was in­fec­ted.

More trouble oc­curred when the shuttle had a failed dock­ing with the ISS and the hull was breached. The as­tro­nauts had to suit up and make re­pairs in space.

SPARC’s ro­bot, Sparcy, trans­ferred the vir­us to the ISS, where the as­tro­nauts real­ized some of it was miss­ing and called for any­one who had con­tact with the con­tain­er that held the vir­us to get to the sta­tion for quar­ant­ine. The stu­dents man­ning the mis­sion con­trol con­sole on Earth called the as­tro­nauts. They heard someone cough­ing and wanted to know if the as­tro­nauts had been ex­posed.

“I swear I’m not in­fec­ted,” came a re­sponse from space.

The ISS com­mand­er, seni­or Ra­mon Contreras, and the med­ic­al spe­cial­ist, sopho­more Emily Gonza­lez, began test­ing Frame to see if he had been in­fec­ted. They couldn’t tell ini­tially and they be­came in­fec­ted, too. Frame, Contreras and Gonza­lez “died.”

The two people in the shuttle, SPARC’s vet­er­an as­tro­naut and com­mand­er, ju­ni­or Jonath­an Seitz, and the first-time pi­lot fresh­man An­thony Gar­cia, sur­vived.

“They will be res­cued in the two-day spring flight, along with some oth­er sur­prises I have in store,” said vet­er­an scriptwriter seni­or Jeremy Cruz.

Ac­tu­ally, something al­ways goes wrong in SPARC’s tightly scrip­ted space jour­neys. That’s part of the ex­per­i­ence. Every­body in­volved knows something dan­ger­ous is sup­posed to hap­pen, but not every­body knows what or when.

Cruz seems to like to make things dif­fi­cult for the as­tro­nauts in his scripts. In April, one got burned by a rock­et and an­oth­er was ex­posed to ra­di­ation. Last Decem­ber, a fire broke out in the space shuttle, and an as­tro­naut was in­jured.

But com­pared to those in­cid­ents, the Fri­day the 13th script, with its three dead as­tro­nauts, was pretty dark. Former SPARC dir­ect­or Mar­garet Kar­p­in­ski, who re­tired last year, said the script ori­gin­ally called for just one death, she said, but Cruz changed it.

This wasn’t the first time as­tro­nauts died, she said out­side mis­sion con­trol on Fri­day. In years past, a team per­ished as mem­bers were re­turn­ing to Earth, she said. Too many stu­dents to list here par­ti­cip­ated in the jour­ney to the ISS. Here are some of the key play­ers:

Seni­or Jes­sica Hat­tina served as mis­sion spokes­wo­man and a ro­bot­ics man­ager; Cruz also was flight dir­ect­or and flight man­ager. Ju­ni­or Pr­em Pa­tel was a ro­bot­ics man­ager, and seni­or Shareef Al­warasneh was pro­ject co­ordin­at­or and ad­min­is­tra­tion and med­ic­al man­ager.

Med­ic­al man­agers were seni­ors Jenny Ho­ang and Nich­olas Wor­rell. Com­puter man­agers were ju­ni­or Tyler Mal­lon and seni­or Chris­ti­an Lat­tan­zio. Seni­ors James Eld­er-Wilk­er­son and Rachel Buttry were en­gin­eer­ing man­agers.

Many mem­bers of the team are vet­er­ans of past flights. Cruz, for ex­ample, has writ­ten sev­er­al scripts and was flight man­ager in the spring. Hat­tina, Al­warasneh, Lat­tan­zio and Ho­ang all had the same jobs dur­ing the April mis­sion. Seitz, Buttry, Mal­lon and Wor­rell were as­tro­nauts dur­ing that mis­sion. Seitz, who is one of the sur­viv­ors, has been an as­tro­naut sev­er­al times. Car­ole Niemiec was the spon­sor of the Ro­bot­ics Di­vi­sion. North­east High School nurse Anne John­son was spon­sor of the Med­ic­al Di­vi­sion. Con­nelly said each flight is really run by the stu­dents, not teach­ers.

“I just make sure they get what they need,” he said. ••

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