By Tamas Mondovics

Former Fishhawk Creek Elementary School students Karinna Crespo, 12; Chandrika Gandrui, 12; and Casey Utsler, 11, watched anxiously as their science experiment on board of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasted into space from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral toward the International Space Station (ISS). SpaceX, is a Los Angeles commercial space company.

The successful launch was much welcomed after a failed attempt last summer when an unmanned rocket carrying the girls’ experiment exploded just minutes after launch.

“Seeing the rocket explode last year was very upsetting, but our teacher reminded us that we are to expect anything,” Karinna, a student at Mulrennan Middle School, said. “It is part of science.”

The experiment designed by microgravity curriculum students will test how zero gravity affects cottonseed growth chosen by the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP), which attempts to improve interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) by providing students grades five through college access to space for their experiments. The cottonseed experiment cost roughly $21,500.

Casey, now a sixth-grader at Randall Middle School, explained that the experiment involves a small plastic tube divided into three chambers. Following the experiment’s arrival at the ISS, an astronaut will immediately expose some of the cottonseeds to water under weightless conditions, and will do the same to the rest of the seeds a couple of weeks prior to the experiment’s return to Earth in May. The girls are to then compare the seed growth to the growth of seeds that remained on earth under Earth’s gravity.

Casey said that her team’s hypothesis is that some of the seeds will germinate, or start to grow. “Cottonseed roots grow downward on Earth because of gravity so we are interested in finding out what happens to the roots in space,” she said, adding that research could be useful when planning a manned mission to Mars. “Astronauts might have to cultivate their own cotton crops, which is great as cotton has so many uses like clothing and food.”

The recent experiment is by no means the first for Hillsborough County to reach the ISS. Casey’s older sister, Isabelle Utsler, was the member of another FishHawk Elementary School team whose experiment, which measured how low gravity affects lettuce seed growth, was chosen in 2014.

Proud of the students’ dedication and commitment, science academic coach with the Hillsborough County School District and local project manager for SSEP, Mary Vaughn, praised the girls’ efforts especially for not giving up following the disappointing first attempt.

“This is an incredible experience for these students,” Vaughn said. “The girls have exceeded our expectations. They truly encourage other students to pursue their science interests.”

Vaughn said that the district is currently involved with its third SSEP mission, which will test the rate of quinoa seed germination and is already making plans for a fourth project during the upcoming school year.

SSEP is undertaken by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education in partnership with Nanoracks, LLC. This on-orbit educational research opportunity is enabled through NanoRacks, LLC, which is working in partnership with NASA under a Space Act Agreement as part of the utilization of the International Space Station as a National Laboratory. For more information, visit or

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