Grace Kalnins and Lucas McMillin, the Mission 14 team, investigate how spinach can grow on a space station.

By Dominique Asher

Up, up and away! A group of aspiring STEM students from Randall Middle School recently participated in the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP), working together to create their ‘Spinach on the Station’ project, which was chosen to fly up to space.

Guided by Mary Vaughn, teacher of Gifted Earth and Space Science at Randall, the Mission 14 team, made up of seventh grade student Grace Kalnins and eighth grade student Lucas McMillin, worked rigorously to produce an entry to the highly competitive SSEP.

SSEP is a demanding competition incorporating science, history, written communication skills and math that is held by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE), where students must answer an essential question: “What physical, chemical or biological system would [they] 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?”

Kalnins and McMillin researched microgravity and the bone mass loss that it causes. The team came up with the idea that spinach would be a viable food source, as it is high in nutrients and especially calcium, and they researched ways that astronauts going to the Moon or Mars could be able to grow the spinach.

After concluding that spinach would be a viable food source, Kalnins and McMillin started the experimental design and proposal writing phase and concluded with a five-page proposal.

Vaughn explained, “The students completed nine weeks of experimental design and proposal writing from September 3, 2019 to the due date, November 1, 2019.”

The team and SSEP were supported by a number of community partners and sponsors that helped along the way.

Despite their experiment being chosen to launch into space and travel to the International Space Station (ISS), Kalnins and McMillin continue to work hard and refine and develop their experiment before the launch date in upcoming October.

Vaughn gushed, “As the teacher facilitator for the Spinach on the Station proposal, I am very proud and honored that with a lot of hard work Grace and Lucas have officially become microgravity researchers.”

This year, the NCESSE is holding the SSEP competition to honor the 50-year anniversary of the Apollo 11 flight to the Moon and the crew aboard, where Neil Armstrong made history as the first human to walk on the Moon. The Mission 14 team’s experiment will be the first out of three to go into space and to the ISS.

To learn more about SSEP, visit

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