LUMMI — Lummi Nation School students have space on their minds.
Fourth graders in Alana Marshall’s class design mission patches while kids in Gary Brandt’s technology class build rockets out of household items and experiment with robots.
In Riley Thuleen’s high-school class, students discuss the logistics of different kinds of space-based experiments and how they could be designed to be performed on the International Space Station.
Those experiments are not hypothetical. Next year, an experiment designed by Lummi Nation School students will be loaded onto a rocket and sent to the space station, where astronauts will complete it as they orbit the Earth at more than 17,000 miles per hour.
“It’s such an amazing opportunity,” Brandt said.
Brandt is in his fourth year at Lummi Nation School after working at Northwest Indian College from 1989 to 2018. He retired, as he puts it, “for an hour,” before Lummi Nation School approached him and asked him to come teach there.
Brandt said he remembers watching the Russian satellite Sputnik fly overhead in 1957 and thinking, “By the time I’m 20, I’ll be on the moon.”
It didn’t work out that way, but through the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program, Brandt said students can reach for space in a different way, and Lummi Nation School science teacher Andy Rodrigues said that’s more relevant than ever.
“Our students really could go to space,” Rodrigues said. “That is a real, not-far-fetched idea at all. They’re 12, 13 right now. My son’s 12. He could go to space, for real. That’s actually a job potential at this point.”
Brandt discovered the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program via an email from a colleague.
“People oftentimes will send me little snippets of things that are happening and if it looks like something that will be really exciting, I’ll jump on it and explore it and we’ll see what happens,” Brandt said.
Brandt researched the experiment program and knew right away that Lummi Nation School students could tackle it.
Funding the project would require at least $25,000, and Brandt made that happen via a connection he made with the Mount Baker Foundation, which came through with $25,000.
After the Lummi Nation School presented the project to the foundation’s board, they awarded another $25,000. The money will potentially help fund a trip to Kennedy Space Center to watch the rocket launch, as well as the cost of sending the school’s experiment up to the space station.
“It’s a total grant of $50,000,” said Debbie Ahl, executive director of the Mount Baker Foundation. “It’s intended to support a combination of the entrance fees to be part of this whole process and for the experiments to go into space. The remainder of the $50,000 is a flexible fund designed to support community involvement and engagement.”
Ahl said the foundation’s support of the project stems from its support of the Lummi Nation School and the nation itself.
“Lummi Nation School is a small school and this is a very exciting project where students will be engaged in scientific methodology to be able to link their experiments and their STEM learning to the International Space Station missions,” Ahl said. “It’s such a huge opportunity for the students. Mount Baker Foundation also has such respect for Lummi Nation and the level of family and community engagement that we saw this as an opportunity for there to be this focus on both a scholarly and a broad innovation that the community itself would be able to wrap itself around, that we want to support the Lummi Nation in any way we can.”
With funding secured, it’s now time for the Lummi Nation School to nail down its experiments. The whole process of designing these experiments began with the school’s teachers introducing the idea of why it’s interesting to work in microgravity in the first place.
“Everything that we know and love and understand, it comes from the gravitational fields on Earth affecting everything,” Rodrigues said. “We have scientists and technologies and companies who are on their way to Mars, nearly literally. It’s going to happen easily in the next 10 years. We’ll have humans on the way to Mars. How we’re going to do that is they need to do lots of experiments in microgravity to see what happens to basically everything because we’ve never seen it in the absence of gravity.”
These experiments could lead to discoveries related to how microgravity affects the human body, chemical reactions, biological reactions and more, and Rodrigues said the constraints are just another piece of the puzzle for students to solve.
For students like Serena-Jo Pantalia and her classmates in Thuleen’s fifth-period class, it’s a difficult problem to solve, but one they’re tackling day after day.
Brandt said the experiments must be contained in a small silicone tube that is nine inches long. It can have clamps to make it into one, two or three chambers, and the astronauts onboard the space station can only clamp, unclamp and shake the tube. That’s it.
“We’re way limited to what we can do, which gives us a lot of opportunities to be creative, a lot of opportunities to think about this and come up with unique solutions,” Brandt said.
Pantalia said she was originally interested in testing the effects of microgravity on the cell reproduction of starfish, but she and her class quickly discovered that they wouldn’t be able to keep the starfish alive on the trip.
“Now I’m kind of thinking seeds and plants,” Pantalia said. “How something will thrive and how it will grow properly in microgravity.”
The experiment design process is a competition within the school. Different groups within different classes will work on their experiment ideas, and those ideas will be presented to a community review board consisting of Lummi Nation School faculty members, professors from Northwest Indian College and local educators. The panel will look at the proposals and choose three frontrunners.
“Those get sent to the (Student Spaceflight Experiments Program) people and they’ll go through another review board of scientists and things, sending them back if they think some things need to be corrected or changed,” Rodrigues said.
Brandt said the experiment chosen out of the final three will be built by students at the school as part of the Student Spaceflight Experiment Program’s 16th mission to the International Space Station. That experiment will then be sent to Texas, packaged and then sent off to Kennedy Space Center and loaded onto a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, which will carry it to the space station.
As for the current day-to-day, however, it’s all about designing that tiny experiment.
“After we figured out how small the tube is, that set us back a little, but I’d say we’re doing pretty good now,” Pantalia said.
It’s a competition, and not all the school’s experiments will be chosen, but Pantalia is more than okay with that.
“Win or lose, we win,” she said. “That’s awesome. Our small Native American school that you wouldn’t think would have this opportunity; for me, win or lose, I’ll take it.”