By Andrew Campanella with Savanna Buckner
NASA is studying whether the clocks we have in our homes will still work in space. More specifically: the scientists want to know if time moves more slowly once a quartz crystal clock leaves the earth’s atmosphere.
Some scientists think so – but they expect the time to only change by a fraction of a second. Still, their findings might tell us something – anything – about a subject that has fascinated people for centuries: the possibility of time travel.
These scientists are testing their theory with two experiments currently installed on the International Space Station.
The scientists, though, are not NASA engineers. They are high school students at Brethren Christian School in Riverside, California.
Eight students from Brethren Christian School are participating in an extraordinary program called Quest for Space. The program allows teams of student scientists to design and build experiments for the International Space Station. Lots of schools apply, but only a few are accepted into the extremely competitive program.
According to Colby Peterson, a junior at Brethren Christian School and the school’s technical lead for these experiments, acceptance into the program is only the first step.
“Throughout the process, we have different check-ins with NASA and SpaceX. Near the beginning, we have an idea of the approval process,” he said. At any point, Peterson said, NASA could reject the project if it doesn’t meet the agency’s exacting standards.
The superintendent of Brethren Christian School, Dr. John Moran, said that it is rare for a school’s project to receive full approval in their initial attempt.
“This could have been rejected or have failed at any time,” Moran said. “Many schools do not launch in the first year of the program. I am so proud of this team that everything is approved and they’ve launched in such a short time frame in the first year.”
From the concept phase of the experiment to the launch of the experiments on the Cygnus NG-11 unmanned cargo vessel in mid-April, the project took about six months. Moran and Peterson credit the tenacity of individual students, and the help of dedicated volunteer mentors. Mentorship is one of the school’s core values.
“My education philosophy is that we are mentoring in everything,” Moran said. “In every classroom, every sports team, every after-school, activity, we want to help boys and girls become Godly men and women who can make a positive impact on society. So, mentors are key. Without mentors, we wouldn’t have a program like this.”
Brethren Christian School’s approach, and their mentorship program, extends beyond the space experiments. They have a debate team and a strong arts program, and they encourage students to give back to their community and to the world.
“We have mentors who are leading a team of our students, in June, to go to Montaña de Luz, an orphanage in Honduras where all of the children have HIV,” Moran said. “We do building projects and other service projects there and spend time with the children.”
Moran said that his school exemplifies an approach to Christian education that isn’t covered by the media.
“Christian schools have been characterized as anti-science or isolationist,” he said. “I find Christian education to be the opposite. We should be really strong in science and certainly should go out and interact with the world and serve the world. Jesus gave us the example of service, and we should follow that by giving students as many practical ways to serve as possible.”
As for young scientist Colby Peterson, Brethren Christian School is a home away from home.
“Besides the opportunity to send something into space, I like the fact that I can do a vast array of things all at one time here,” he said. “Besides our experiments, I’m a teaching assistant for a computer science class, and I’m in band and jazz band. I can do a whole lot here, and focus on a lot of different things.”
And many of those things, it is clear to me, are quite extraordinary. Because Brethren Christian School is an extraordinary place.