Before reading this page, make sure to read the SSEP Home page for an Executive Summary of the program.
The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) was launched in June 2010 by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE) in strategic partnership with Nanoracks, LLC. It is a remarkable U.S. national Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education initiative that gives typically 300+ students (at least 100 students) across a participating pre-college community (or at least 30 students for an undergraduate community) the ability to design and propose real microgravity experiments to fly in low Earth orbit – initially aboard the final flights of the Space Shuttle, and now on the International Space Station.
The program provides seamless integration across STEM disciplines through an authentic, high visibility research experience—an approach that embraces the Next Generation Science Standards. SSEP immerses hundreds of students at the local level in the research experience—students are truly given the ability to be real scientists and engineers.
Each community participating in SSEP is provided a very real research asset – launch services to transport one student team designed microgravity experiment (an experiment conducted in a weightless environment) to the International Space Station (ISS) where it is operated by the astronauts. The experiment is designed for operation in a flight certified, straightforward to use microgravity research mini-laboratory. After a typical 4 to 6 week stay in orbit, the experiment will be returned to Earth for harvesting and analysis by the community’s student flight team.
Mirroring how professional researchers formally compete to obtain limited research assets, the participating community carries out a ‘call for proposals’. More specifically, the community conducts a local Flight Experiment Design Competition, engaging potentially hundreds of students in teams of typically 3-5, with each team vying for the community’s single experiment slot by proposing a microgravity research program that can be carried out in the mini-laboratory.
The competition is conducted through formal submission of real (but grade level appropriate) research proposals by the student teams – as is standard practice for professional researchers. 50-80 flight experiment proposals are typically secured across a single pre-college community. At least 10 proposals are required for an undergraduate community.
Content resources for teachers and students support foundational instruction on science in microgravity and experiment design. A suite of SSEP program elements—the Community Program—leverages the flight experiment design competition to engage the entire community, embracing a Learning Community Model for STEM education. For school districts—even individual schools—SSEP provides an opportunity to implement a systemic, high caliber STEM education program tailored to community need.
SSEP is designed to inspire and engage America’s next generation of scientists and engineers, and it is accomplished by providing each participating community their own very real Space Program.
The program is open to 5 categories of community, which provides a great deal of flexibility in implementing SSEP at the local level:
- Pre-College (the core focus for SSEP) in the U.S., (grades 5-12), with a participating school district—even an individual school—providing a stunning, real, on-orbit RESEARCH opportunity to their upper elementary, middle, and high school students
- 2-Year Community Colleges in the U.S., (grades 13-14), where the student body is typically from the local community, providing wonderful pathways for community-wide engagement
- 4-Year Colleges and Universities in the U.S., (grades 13-16), with an emphasis on Minority-Serving Institutions, where the program fosters interdisciplinary collaboration across schools and departments, and an opportunity for formal workforce development for science majors
- Communities in the U.S. led by Informal Education or Out-of-School Organizations, (e.g., a museum or science center, a home school network, a boy scout troop), because high caliber STEM education programs must be accessible to organizations that promote effective learning beyond the traditional classroom
- Communities Internationally: in European Space Agency (ESA) member nations, European Union (EU) member nations, Canada, and Japan with participation through NCESSE’s Arthur C. Clarke Institute for Space Education. Communities in other nations should explore the potential for their participation by contacting the Institute.
Critical Timeline of Activities:
Once a community joins the program, teachers can begin using SSEP-provided curriculum resources for classroom introduction on: 1) the nature of a microgravity environment, where the presence and effects of gravity appear to be absent, 2) the broad range of science that can be conducted in microgravity and why, which is one of the key motivations for constructing the International Space Station–America’s newest National Laboratory, and 3) the approach to designing microgravity experiments using the SSEP mini-laboratory. Student teams across the community then move on to experiment definition and design. Mirroring how professional research is done, teams write flight experiment proposals using a formal and grade level appropriate proposal guideline. The design competition—from program start, to experiment design, to submission of proposals by student teams—runs 9 weeks. The submitted proposals go through a 2-step proposal review process to select the flight experiment for the community. The flight experiment goes through a formal NASA flight safety review at Johnson Space Center, and is transported to ISS as part of an SSEP experiments payload.
Each SSEP Flight Opportunity has its own Critical Timeline which defines all milestones and deadlines.
2. Program Pedagogy
The SSEP paradigm derives from the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education’s Core Beliefs, its embraced Learning Community Model for science education, and its heritage of delivering community-wide programming. SSEP is designed to be flexible enough to address a community’s unique strategic needs in STEM education, to be delivered systemically across a school district, and to be sustainable.
When designing SSEP, we had our pedagogical approach to STEM education in mind. SSEP empowers the student as scientist, and within the real-world context of science that is far more than exploration through inquiry. SSEP allows student teams to design an experiment like scientists, with real constraints imposed by the experimental apparatus, current knowledge, and the environment in which the experiment will be conducted; it allows students to propose for a real flight opportunity like professional scientists, bringing critical written communications skills to bear; it allows students to experience a real 2-step science proposal review process; it allows students to go through a real flight safety review like professional researchers; and it provides students their own science conference, where they are immersed in their community of researchers, communicating their thoughts, ideas, and experimental results to their peers. Science is more than a way of thinking and interacting with the natural world. Science is more than a book of knowledge. Science is also a complex social landscape filled with challenges, and the need for multi-faceted and successful communication with one’s peers. SSEP is about introducing real science to our next generation of scientists and engineers.
3. The Flight Experiment Design Competition
In each participating SSEP community, as part of the Flight Experiment Design Competition, student teams design microgravity flight experiments and submit well-crafted, formal proposals that are written to criteria defined in the SSEP Flight Experiment Proposal Guide. Proposals go through a 2-Step review process, with the participating community assembling a Step 1 Review Board of local area educators and researchers that selects 3 finalist proposals. The finalist proposals are forwarded to the SSEP National Step 2 Review Board that selects one flight experiment for each community.
SSEP makes use of microgravity research mini-laboratories that Nanoracks, LLC, schedules to fly in low Earth orbit. Each mini-lab contains a single experiment, and multiple mini-laboratories are carried to orbit in a payload box. Nanoracks makes the same mini-laboratory available to the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program as to professional research communities in government, academia, and industry. SSEP student flight teams might therefore share the space in the payload box with mini-labs flown by the professional research community.
Each community participating in the SSEP will be provided space in the payload box for one mini-lab containing their selected flight experiment. A community also has the option to underwrite space for more than one mini-lab, hence more than one flight experiment.
But the goal is not just flying a few dozen student team experiments—it’s ensuring that these experiments result from experiment design competitions at the local level where each competition engages hundreds of students in real science. It is about leveraging authentic research experiences into science education. It is about immersing hundreds of classrooms in the process of experimental design, and student ownership in learning.
Read the details regarding the Flight Experiment Design Competition
4. The Experiment Design Experience
Student teams across your community propose experiments to be operated in the microgravity (weightless) environment aboard the International Space Station. In such an environment, anything to be studied – whether it’s a physical process like crystal growth, a chemical process like oxidation, or a biological process like seed germination – will proceed as if gravity is absent. Recall videos of astronauts floating in their spacecraft, exhibiting ‘weightlessness’. The experiment conducted on Station is called the ‘flight experiment’. An identical experiment is conducted on Earth at the same time in Earth gravity, and is termed the ‘control’ or ‘ground truth’ experiment.
The flight experiment proceeds in the seeming absence of gravity, and the control experiment proceeds in Earth gravity. When the flight experiment returns to Earth, the role of gravity in what is being studied can in principle be discerned based on differences observed in the two experiments. The flight experiment together with the control experiment are defined as a single ‘microgravity experiment’.
The essential question therefore driving all SSEP experiment design is –
What physical, chemical, or biological system would I like to explore with gravity seemingly turned off for a period of time, as a means of assessing the role of gravity in that system?
Aboard the International Space Station, an experiment can be run for just a couple of days, to potentially over a month. Diverse fields of study include: seed germination, crystal growth, physiology and life cycles of microorganisms (e.g. bacteria), cell biology and growth, food studies, and studies of micro-aquatic life (e.g., Planaria Worms). Content resources for teachers and students support foundational instruction on science in microgravity and experimental design.
Each experiment must be designed to work within an existing, flight-ready, easy-to-use, professional research mini-laboratory, which is specifically designed to combine separate sample materials (fluids and/or solids) once in orbit. The experiment in the mini-lab consists of the samples loaded into up to three separate volumes, which can be mixed in a prescribed way by astronauts on Space Station. The mini-lab can be thought of as up to three separate small test tubes of samples. For example, a seed germination experiment might consist of dry seeds, distilled water, and alcohol (or formalin). Once in orbit, the seeds are hydrated, after some time they germinate, and after a few days of growth the alcohol (or formalin) is introduced to terminate the experiment and preserve the seedlings. The student team conducts the identical control experiment on the ground. When the flight experiment returns, they can compare it to the control and assess if there are any differences in germination rates, growth rates, and appearance of the seedlings – which can reveal the role of gravity in seed germination.
For Space Shuttle operations, SSEP used the Materials Dispersion Apparatus (MDA) mini-lab. For International Space Station operations, SSEP is currently using the Fluids Mixing Enclosure (FME) mini-lab.
The experiment samples (fluids and/or solids) used in the student experiments must pass a NASA Flight Safety Review (see Section 10 below.)
Read the details regarding Designing the Flight Experiment
5. The Community Program
The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program is also about fostering a community-wide celebration of the human capacity to explore, the nature of exploration, and the joys of learning.
We have therefore created a suite of program elements and resources that immerse your entire community in the local spaceflight experiment design competition. This includes: i) an SSEP National Blog that provides ongoing coverage of the program, and serves as a showcase for community experiences; ii) an art and design competition for a Mission Patch to fly along with the community’s experiment, and which is returned after the flight with a certification that it was flown in space; iii) a suite of Multimedia Resources that allow you to track the ISS over the Earth, watch live video from ISS looking down on Earth, follow an aggregate stream of tweets from all astronauts aboard ISS, and find out when ISS will be visible overhead from your home; iv) a National SSEP Conference likely held at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, in Washington, DC, where your students formally present on their experimental designs and teams flying experiments report on their results, nationally recognized scientists and engineers are featured speakers, and attendees are treated to tours of the Museum, and v) an SSEP Community Network Website (the ‘Hubsite’), where you can read profiles of the communities, descriptions of all flight experiments and flight mission patches, watch videos of student teams presenting at the conference, and watch SSEP showcase videos made by the communities.
SSEP also provides the ability for your community to host—for up to a week—a National Team of scientists and engineers from research organizations across the nation, through NCESSE’s Journey through the Universe program. Team members talk to potentially thousands of students–one classroom at a time–providing firsthand experiences about what it’s like to do research on the frontiers of exploration, and an understanding of the educational path they took to the frontier. The Team also conducts family and public presentations on compelling topics in the space sciences and spaceflight. These presentations also provide opportunities for the community as a whole to honor all the classes that proposed experiments, and to bestow awards for participation in the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program. Programming by the National Team can also include a 1-day workshop for teachers customized to local curricular need, and capable of addressing a variety of topics, including: use of inquiry-based learning in the classroom, science in microgravity, and experimental design.
Read the details regarding the Community Program
6. A Program Customized to Your Community
A community can choose to make the SSEP flight experiment design competition grade level or discipline specific, e.g., just 7th grade biology classes, all grade 9-12 science classes, or college seniors across all science departments. The SSEP Baseline Program reserves one mini-laboratory slot in orbit for your community, but additional slots can be reserved if you want to: 1) hold separate but simultaneous competitions e.g., one at the middle school level and one at the high school level, or 2) hold a single competition which provides for more than one experiment to fly.
The Community Program resources such as the web-based and social media resources, and the optional National Team visits to classrooms, presentations at family and public events, and professional development workshops for teachers, are tailorable to the grade level(s) your community chooses to engage through SSEP. The SSEP philosophy of approach is to provide flexible resources so that a community can customize the program to their needs. This is not our program it is your program.
To get a sense of how the 221 communities that participated in the first 19 flight opportunities (STS-134 and STS-135 on the Space Shuttle, and SSEP Missions 1 through 17 to the International Space Station) customized SSEP to their strategic needs in STEM education, visit the Community Profiles page at the SSEP Community Network Hubsite.
7. Size and Nature of a Participating Community and Appropriate Lead Organization
You are free to define the size of your community as you see fit, as long as you meet the required minimum number of students engaged (see below). It can be a single school district of any size, or multiple school districts working together—which is a great model for a rural area. It can even be a single large school. It can be a department in a college, or multiple schools across a university. It can be an informal education institution that can serve as a focal point for community-wide engagement in out-of-school time.
An appropriate lead organization in the community might be a school district(s), a museum or science center, a college or university, or some other institution dedicated to education, such as a home school network.
When it comes to defining “your community”, we encourage you to think outside the box, and to Contact Us with your thoughts.
Important note on student engagement in a single community: For pre-college grades 5-12, each community typically engages 300+ students in microgravity experiment design and proposal writing, though a minimum of 100 is required. SSEP is not designed for an individual class or a small number of students in a pre-college community. For an undergraduate community, it is expected that at least 30 students will be engaged.
8. Implementing SSEP Across Your Community—To School Districts, Schools, and Science Educators
Your community’s participation in SSEP will most likely be coordinated from a central office at a local institution, and/or by a key science educator. For example, for a school district, it might be the Supervisor of Science in the science (or STEM) office briefing secondary science teaching staff across the district, or briefing a corps of lead science teachers who can then take the program back to their schools. For SSEP participation by an individual school, it might be a lead science teacher, with the blessing of their principal, that engages the cross-disciplinary science teaching staff.
A participating community will designate a SSEP Community Program Director (or Co-Directors) who oversees a SSEP Local Team charged with formally carrying out the program. The SSEP National Team (us) is available for conference calls, or videoconferences for program briefings. Such conferences have provided a community’s Local Team a formal grounding in the program, a sense of community-wide ownership, a common starting point, and a venue to ask questions. These conference calls have been exceedingly successful in getting aboard the 221 communities that have participated in the 19 SSEP flight opportunities to date.
It should be noted that science teachers at upper elementary, middle school, and high school levels, as well as at community colleges and 4-year colleges and universities across the U.S. and Canada, and across multiple science disciplines, have already effectively engaged their classes in designing and proposing experiments to fly aboard STS-134 and STS-135, and to the International Space Station. SSEP is a proven program. As a benchmark, for the first 19 SSEP flight opportunities, 147,660 grade 5-16 students were engaged in experiment design. A combined 29,526 proposals were submitted by student teams, with a total of 11,895 proposals forwarded to the communities’ Step 1 Review Boards. 1,111 finalist proposals were then submitted to the National SSEP Step 2 Review Boards for selection of the flight experiments—at least one experiment for each participating community. You’re invited to read about the Experiments Selected for Flight at the SSEP Community Network Hubsite. Explore media coverage of the SSEP experiences across the Community Network on the SSEP In the News page, which includes links to over 1,300 media articles.
We also strongly recommend seeking out an interdisciplinary advisory group of local area researchers that can talk to your students firsthand about the process of experiment design, and what it is like to write a formal research proposal. These researchers can also serve on your Step 1 Review Board. You might consider, e.g., having these researchers provide a panel discussion on experiment design for your community, and one that can be taped and archived. We also strongly recommend that each student team partner with a researcher who is an expert in the specific discipline associated with the team’s experimental topic (see Section 9 below). SSEP thus provides a wonderful opportunity to put in place a formal relationship between your students, your educators, and researchers both locally and nationally.
9. Implementing Experiment Design in the Classroom
The community is free to decide if SSEP should be implemented in the classroom, during out-of-class time, or some combination of both. However, we strongly recommend that the curriculum be presented in class, while the majority of time dedicated to experiment design and proposal writing is well suited for out-of-class time. What is typical is that teachers across a community each commit one or more of their classes to participation in SSEP. The curriculum is delivered to entire classes, and the teacher then breaks each class into multiple student teams.
It is also up to the community to decide the acceptable size of a student team proposing an experiment, e.g., a small group of students, or an individual student. Note, however, that we recommend a team size of no more than 3-5 students so that students can work effectively as a team, and that there are enough teams for a formal research competition. Each proposing team must have a designated Teacher Facilitator who is charged with guiding students on the team through the experiment design and proposal writing process. A teacher can serve as Teacher Facilitator to multiple student teams.
Once a student team identifies an experimental topic, they should find a Researcher Advisor who is an expert in that topic. In the age of Zoom videoconferencing, there is no reason for this researcher to be local, and depending on the narrowness of the experimental topic, the researcher is likely not to be local. As part of the professional development for your teachers, delivered before program start, we provide a straightforward approach for student teams to identify possible Researcher Advisors.
For implementation of SSEP in the classroom, we have assembled a suite of Teacher and Student Resources, which includes: this SSEP Website; ongoing Technical Assistance (via contact information on the Contact page) for questions on experimental design, timeline, and submission, which in turn feeds a FAQ; and a Document Library that includes documents providing student proposers with basic information on the science one might undertake in microgravity, case studies of experiments suitable for the mini-laboratory, and all information required to write and submit a proposal. An additional resource—To Teachers, How to Move Forward—is a straightforward, step-by-step facilitation recipe for how to bring SSEP into the classroom, and get students moving on experiment design.
We invite students in participating classrooms to truly slip on the shoes of the researcher and propose and design experiments just like professional scientists and engineers—experiments designed to the spaceflight hardware to be utilized, and constrained by NASA requirements. One cannot imagine an education program with greater potential to engage students in the process of scientific inquiry, and get them thinking about a career in not just spaceflight, but across all science and technology disciplines.
Read the details regarding the Teacher and Student Resources
10. Mandatory NASA Flight Safety Review and Constraints on Fluids and Solids to be Used in the Experiments
Each selected flight experiment must pass a NASA Flight Safety Review (a review by NASA Toxicology at NASA Johnson Space Center)—which means that the fluids and solid materials to be used in the experiment—the Experiment Samples—must pass review. The safety review ensures that the experiment samples pose no risk to the astronaut crew, the ferry vehicles, or ISS. The level of risk depends on the toxicity of the experiment samples AND how well they are contained in the mini-lab. The more “levels of containment” that are engineered into the mini-lab, the less the restrictions on the experiment samples that can be used.
For SSEP on the Space Shuttle (STS-134 and STS-135), the mini-lab used had ‘two levels of containment’,which required that student proposers could only use experiment samples on a Master List of Experiment Samples. This list included hundreds of allowed samples across 9 separate science disciplines for microgravity research, yet still restricted experiment design. For SSEP on the International Space Station the Fluids Mixing Enclosure (FME) mini-lab has three levels of containment so that the Master List of Samples is no longer required, allowing far less restriction in experiment design by student teams.
Going to a 3-level containment system for ISS extends NCESSE’s commitment to ensure the broadest range of experiment design experiences, and a high level of confidence that all experiments selected for flight will pass the NASA Flight Safety Review. As a benchmark, over the first 19 SSEP flight opportunities, all 382 experiments selected for flight passed NASA flight safety review.
The milestones for Flight Safety Review are part of the Critical Timeline associated with each flight. Four months in advance of launch, NCESSE must provide Nanoracks a list of the experiment samples for the flight experiments selected to fly, which Nanoracks passes on to the NASA Toxicology Office at Johnson Space Center. At this point, each student flight team can continue ‘tweaking’ their experiment sample concentrations and volumes to optimize their experiment until approximately 2 months before launch—but only in terms of reducing concentrations and volumes. The team has no ability to introduce new experiment samples. Some time before launch, NASA will rule on whether the experiment passed Flight Safety Review.
11. The SSEP Cost Model and How We Can Help You Find Funding
Commercial spaceflight is a business, and for the Nanoracks payload of research mini-labs to fly requires Nanoracks to secure paying customers for the lease of mini-lab slots and all launch services. Our non-profit National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE) created SSEP as a national STEM education program based on the availability of these mini-lab slots. The Center is a customer of Nanoracks, and books multiple mini-lab slots for SSEP. In addition, the Center’s staff deliver all SSEP national resources to the participating communities. All SSEP activities are therefore associated with real costs, and the Center must charge a participating community—but on a strictly full cost recovery basis.
A Benchmark For the Very Real Cost of Spaceflight: flying crew and payload to Low Earth Orbit is exceedingly expensive, requiring rockets to carry mass 250 miles above the surface of Earth. How expensive? After the retirement of the Space Shuttles, the U.S. was paying the Russians $86,000,000 to fly a single astronaut to ISS on a Soyuz vehicle (that is about $506,000 per pound for a 170 lb astronaut). The bargain cost to get a human to ISS on the new commercial SpaceX Crew Dragon vehicle is a mere $55,000,000. Here is an article on launch costs per astronaut. The teachable moment here is that space travel is very very expensive.
In this context, we wanted SSEP to be very real spaceflight – this is not a ground-based simulated STEM experience. We wanted to immerse students in an absolutely authentic STEM research program, and inspire them by giving them the ability to work on the frontiers of space exploration. To do this, we need to send payload into Low Earth Orbit for each community. We’re not sending a human, only a small mini-laboratory, and we are able to get a non-profit discount from Nanoracks. But it is still expensive, with a cost of $27,000 USD for a community to participate (see Section 12 below).
SSEP currently has very limited national sponsorship dollars to help underwrite program costs. A community must therefore identify underwriting, and it is appropriate to secure funds from both the public sector (e.g. local, state, and federal education grants) and private sector (e.g., community-based foundations, businesses, and philanthropic organizations.)
But we can help! Our goal is to make a real difference in STEM education through this program. We also recognize the significant challenge to all communities in securing underwriting in the current financial climate. The Center is therefore willing to commit staff time as available to help communities find underwriting. And we’re successful at it. We found full or partial funding for 231 of the 367 SSEP community programs undertaken across the 19 SSEP flight opportunities to date. We can help your community identify funders, and help tune your request to a funder’s underwriting requirements. We have a good proposal template if needed, have developed a set of appropriate talking points when approaching a funder, and have a good track record for securing funding rapidly. So let us help!
12. Program Cost
We recognize that SSEP needs to be flexible enough so its scope at the community level can be tailored to fit community size. We have received requests from both large and small school districts—even individual schools—that wanted to participate in prior SSEP flight opportunities. It is interesting to note that in the U.S. there are nearly 14,000 school districts, 12,000 of which are small with less than 5,000 enrolled students.
To provide maximum access for a broad range of interested communities, we are therefore making SSEP available as a Baseline Program that provides for breadth of programming at the lowest possible cost. The Baseline Program reserves for your community a launch slot to fly your selected flight experiment to the International Space Station to be operated by the astronauts (see the SSEP Launch and On-orbit Operations History page), provides the Experiment Design Competition for up to 3,200 students, provides all Teacher and Student Resources, and provides the majority of the Community Program elements. The Baseline Program can then be augmented with Supplemental Program Options allowing the community to broaden SSEP as they see fit.
The Baseline Program includes:
- flight of one Mini-Laboratory reserved for your community
- the Flight Experiment Design Competition, but limited by the community such that no more than 3,200 students are provided the opportunity to participate. Expanding student participation is a Supplemental Program Option.
- all Teacher and Student Resources
- all Community Program elements with the exception of: 1) the community-wide programming for students, teachers, families, and the public delivered by a National Team of scientists and engineers (this is costed as a Supplemental Program Option, with the cost reflective of the scope of program required); and 2) the National Conference at likely the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, in Washington, DC, which may require a registration fee per attendee. However, for the 2011 through 2019 conferences, NCESSE was able to provide the Conference at no cost, but communities were responsible for all costs associated with travel for their delegations. We currently expect the same approach for the 2023 conference. There were no conferences in 2020 through 2022 due to the Covid pandemic.
Baseline SSEP Program Cost: $27,000
Read the details regarding SSEP Program Costs