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.

  • 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

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. ••

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