SSEP Mission 3 to ISS Experiment Payload on Historic Flight of Orbital Sciences Cygnus, launching from MARS, June 2013

Antares Launch from MARS

ORbital Sciences Antares launching from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS), 5:00 pm EDT, April 21, 2013

The National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE), and the Arthur C. Clarke Institute for Space Education are proud to announce that Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) Mission 3 to ISS experiments will be on the first flight of Orbital Sciences Cygnus to dock with the International Space Station. We thought, though, that we’d share this historic milestone through a backstory. (Spoiler alert – this is a long post.)

This SSEP National Blog is used as a public information channel for the SSEP, providing general program news for anyone interested in following along, including students, teachers, a few hundred local and national partner organizations, and the interested public. But behind the scenes, each SSEP flight opportunity is associated with a network of participating communities, and all educational leadership and SSEP teachers in those communities are on an email distribution listserve. The flight-specific listserve is how day-to-day information is routed to the communities, to their grade 5-14 student researcher teams during the experiment design and proposal phase, and to the student flight experiment teams during the flight operations phase.

To provide a sense of the level of communication – right now and into the future – there are currently 17 Mission 3 to ISS communities in the midst of flight operations to orbit (over 7,000 students were fully engaged in microgravity experiment design and over 1,400 microgravity experiment proposals were submitted by student teams); 11 Mission 4 to ISS communities are winding up the proposal phase, with their flight experiments to be selected by the end of May, 2013; and NCESSE and the Clarke Institute are about to announce Mission 5 to ISS, with operations beginning September 2013. SSEP is about to turn 3 years old in June 2013. It is therefore remarkable that the SEVENTH flight opportunity to orbit  – Mission 5 to ISS – is about to be announced. Equally remarkable – 14 existing SSEP communities have already submitted formal Implementation Plans for Mission 5, reflecting communities starting their second, third, fourth, and even fifth SSEP flight opportunity. This is what sustainable STEM education looks like.

To provide a sense of SSEP program operations behind the scenes, we wanted to share a communique that was issued yesterday via the Mission 3 to ISS listserve. It provides a remarkable window on real spaceflight, what teamwork looks like, and the decisions that student flight teams need to make as real microgravity researchers. And it provides a window on the historic nature of what we are all doing together.

An important note for an understanding of the communique: The 17 Mission 3 to ISS flight experiment teams had a choice to fly their experiment to ISS aboard Soyuz 35S launching on May 28, 2013, or to fly on SpaceX-3 launching in the Fall. The Soyuz 35S flight was sooner, but did not provide refrigeration up to ISS, and the stay aboard ISS was a very long 15 weeks. The SpaceX-3 flight would be next academic year, but offered refrigeration up to ISS, and a more typical, approximately 6-week duration on ISS. Of the 17 flight teams, 5 decided to fly on Soyuz 35S. An additional two SSEP experiments were to fly on Soyuz 35S, a re-flight for a Mission 1 experiment and a re-flight for a Mission 2 experiment, due to mini-lab activation failure.


May 2, 2013, 8:40 am ET
SUBJECT: URGENT to the 7 SSEP Mission 3 Flight Teams on Soyuz 35s – Major Flight Change

To all 7 SSEP flight experiment teams that were scheduled to fly on Soyuz 35S on May 28, 2013 –

We unfortunately have a major change in ferry flight operations to ISS for the SSEP Mission 3 experiments payload. We received the notification below from NanoRacks on Tuesday, April 30, 2013, at 5:30 PM ET. Yesterday we were in communication with NanoRacks and fully assessed the situation. With this email, we are now forwarding you the NanoRacks notification together with NCESSE notes on impact, and immediate actions required by your student flight team. All Mission 3 community Program Directors for the 5 affected Mission 3 experiments, and all Teacher Facilitators for the 5 Mission 3 experiments, the Mission 1 re-flight experiment, and the the Mission 2 re-flight experiment are urged to rapidly communicate this information to their student flight teams, and respond rapidly to our request for information below.

Dr. Jeff Goldstein
SSEP National Program Director

From NanoRacks-

NanoRacks has been working with the Russians and NASA for the upcoming launch of the Mission 3 experiment mini-lab payload on Soyuz 35S, which was scheduled to lift off from Kazakhstan on May 28, 2013. Understanding the complexity of meeting this launch date in Kazakhstan via Russia, we asked [SSEP Falcon 1] flight experiment teams to ship their mini-labs to NanoRacks in Houston by April 24, six weeks in advance of launch.

We unfortunately must report that an unforeseen payload approval issue has come up last minute that makes launch of the payload on Soyuz 35S untenable. Unforeseen last minute requests by our Russian colleagues due to custom considerations to import biologicals has halted the payload onboarding process, and the additional requirements just put forward to NanoRacks make it impossible for us to be comfortable that we would have met the requirements in time to fly on Soyuz 35S.

Therefore, rather than gamble on acceptance, we accepted the offer from NASA to fly on the Orbital Sciences D-1 Cygnus mission scheduled to launch on June 15, 2013 out of NASA Wallops Flight Facility, Wallops Island, Virginia. We have to say this is NASA going above and beyond in support of NanoRacks, NCESSE, and SSEP.

We understand the transition to Orbital may lead to frustration on the part of the flight teams, given that the launch is pushed off, but this is the nature of the space business which is still a frontier. It is not easy. It is hard. Working together as a team we can make this happen, as we have for the last 4 SSEP flight missions.

We understand that some of the 7 experiments might be perishable, and may need to be resubmitted. If this is the case work though NCESSE, and we will all figure out a fix.

We also understand that pushing the flight beyond May 28 can pose real scheduling problems for some flight teams, given they will need to conduct ground truth experiments possibly after the end of the academic year. Again, this is the nature of the real space business, and it is what professional microgravity researchers must contend with for their flight operations. If pushing flight operations poses a problem for a flight team, again, work though NCESSE and let’s see if we can find a work-around.

We wish that we did not have to report this problem, but please know we are always working on behalf of all NCESSE communities participating in SSEP to provide unique and real access to orbit for student researchers.



1. The flight to ISS is now scheduled to launch on Cygnus on June 15, 2013, 2.5 weeks later than the original Soyuz 35S flight on May 28, 2013. However, the ferry flight back to Earth, on Soyuz 34S, remains unchanged, with an un-docking currently scheduled for September 11, 2013. (Note, as is always the case, these launch and landing dates are indeed subject to change by NASA.) This means that the time on orbit for the experiments is 2.5 weeks shorter than planned – which might be a good thing since the originally planned 15-week duration on ISS was significantly longer than the typical SSEP flight opportunity which has payload on orbit for about 6 weeks. This was one of the key considerations when each Mission 3 flight team was deciding on going with the Soyuz 35S or SpaceX-3 opportunity.

2. Refrigeration: as with Soyuz 35S, there will be no means to refrigerate the payload from the time NASA hands over the payload to Orbital Sciences through delivery to ISS. So nothing has changed in terms of thermal control.

3. Background – This Is A Historic Opportunity
Recall that in the post-Space Shuttle era, NASA is looking to commercial (private) companies to step to the plate and provide service for cargo and crew to low Earth orbit. This is heralding in a bold new era of human spaceflight – commercial spaceflight – much like Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight in1927 launched commercial aviation.

Orbital Sciences and SpaceX are the two commercial companies right out of the gate, and both are under contract with NASA to first fly payloads to ISS, then crew. For SpaceX, it is the Dragon spacecraft atop its Falcon rocket, and which launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, next to Kennedy Space Center in Florida. For Orbital Sciences, it is the Cygnus spacecraft atop its Antares rocket, launching out of the MARS – the Mid-Atlantic Regional Space Port near NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, Wallops Island, Virginia (see MARS is remarkable in that it is now operational, and represents the near future – spaceports opening across the nation, indeed the world, for commercial sub-orbital and orbital flights, much like commercial airports were built world-wide in the early 20th century to service commercial aviation.

SSEP saw the end of the Shuttle era, with the first two SSEP flight experiment payloads – payloads Eagle and Intrepid – on the final flight of Space Shuttle Endeavour (STS-134) and on the final flight of the United States Space Shuttle program – the flight of Atlantis (STS-135). SSEP was also there to herald in this new era of on-orbit commercial spaceflight. The SSEP Mission 1 to ISS Aquarius payload was carried aboard the first SpaceX Dragon flight to berth with ISS – the very first time a commercial (private) vehicle docked with ISS. It was historic. And the Aquarius payload was the only research payload aboard Dragon. Indeed, SSEP itself is historic – the first U.S. National STEM education program that provides access to orbit for pre-college student payloads – and which is a COMMERCIAL space venture.

Orbital Sciences conducted its first successful demonstration flight for the Antares rocket on April 21, 2013. It was a launch-to-orbit flight but with no berthing with ISS. (SpaceX Dragon also had one of these demonstration flights to orbit with no berthing.) Because of this recent success, Orbital Science and NASA have rapidly scheduled the first flight for Cygnus to berth with ISS, with a launch on June 15, 2013. Given the issues with Soyuz 35S encountered by NanoRacks, NASA has placed the payload of SSEP Mission 3 experiments aboard this historic flight of Cygnus. SSEP – and the student flight teams flying experiments aboard Cygnus – are again part of history.

100 years from now, historians will point to what we are living through as the moment in history when the human race truly became a spacefaring species. So while this change in flight operations is likely frustrating, it is a remarkable teachable moment for all of us to savor.

To help see the historic import, here are SEEP National Blog posts I wrote to capture the moment when we first launched on SpaceX Dragon:

4. Given that the launch will now take place in the U.S., NCESSE is willing to explore with MARS staff whether they would host delegations from communities coming down for the launch. But we only want to pursue this – and this would have to be done very quickly – if communities are interested in sending delegations to the launch site. This is clearly last minute, and there are hurdles to traveling to MARS, e.g., no airport very close.



Given the significant change in flight operations, all student flight teams for the 7 flight experiments are requested to immediately assess impact on their flight experiment and report out answers for the following questions to your SSEP Flight Ops Manager, Stacy Hamel:


1. Your experiment will not get to ISS until 2.5 weeks later than planned
QUESTION: Are your fluids/solids perishable to the point that the change requires you to send a new mini-lab containing new fluids and solids? (We believe this is likely not the case, given that this was a very long duration mission to begin with – 15 weeks on ISS – and likely only experiments that could be held in stasis for a long period would have been put on Soyuz 35S, as opposed to the payload flying on SpaceX-3 in the Fall with duration on ISS of 6 weeks.

2. Crew Handling
QUESTION: given the shorter duration on orbit, do you need to change your Crew Handling directions? Recall that your Crew Handling Directions are given in days relative to Arrival (A), and Departure (D). Refer to the Mission 3 Mini-Lab Operations page.

3. Conducting Your Ground Truth Experiments
QUESTION: Does the new flight schedule adversely impact your ability to conduct your Ground Truth Experiments at the same time as your on-orbit experiment is conducted? (We beleive this is also likely not the case. Even though the new launch date may be near to, or after, the end of the academic year, on-orbit operations were going to continue through September 2013 anyway. So all teams that chose to put their experiment on Soyuz 35S must have already planned their ground truth activity throughout the summer.)

Important reminder: remember that there will be a Mission 3 Flight Operations Log on the SSEP website (we had directed you familiarize yourself with the Mission 2 Log). The Log will detail every astronaut interaction with every experiment, so each team can replicate in their ground truth what is happening with their experiment on orbit. This allows you to compare the ground truth to the flight experiment when harvesting and analyzing your samples on return to Earth, which is likely a vital activity for experiment success. NCESSE assumes that all flight teams are prepared to simultaneously conduct ground truths with their on-orbit experiments using the Log.

4. Other Adverse Considerations
QUESTION: are there any other adverse impacts on your experiment due to the flight change?

5. Is there interest in your community sending a delegation to the launch? If yes, we need to know ASAP, and this includes total in delegation, and a breakdown of attendees by SSEP student researchers, teachers/administrators, and family members.

Best wishes,
Real spaceflight all the time,



The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) is a program of the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE) in the U.S., and the Arthur C. Clarke Institute for Space Education internationally. It is enabled through a strategic partnership with NanoRacks LLC, working with NASA under a Space Act Agreement as part of the utilization of the International Space Station as a National Laboratory. SSEP is the first pre-college STEM education program that is both a U.S. national initiative and implemented as an on-orbit commercial space venture.

The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS)Carnegie Institution of Washington, NASA Nebraska Space Grant Consortium, and Subaru of America are National Partners on the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program.

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The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) is a program of the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE) in the U.S., and the Arthur C. Clarke Institute for Space Education internationally. It is enabled through a strategic partnership with DreamUp PBC and NanoRacks LLC, which are working with NASA under a Space Act Agreement as part of the utilization of the International Space Station as a National Laboratory. SSEP is the first pre-college STEM education program that is both a U.S. national initiative and implemented as an on-orbit commercial space venture.