Fourth time’s a charm

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There was a launch party Dec. 3 at the Boeing Building in Crystal City. Hundreds of St. Thomas More Cathedral School students, parents and teachers filled a conference room to watch the launch on large TV monitors hung from the walls showing the United Launch Alliance V 401 rocket ready to go. Students and parents were excited.

"It's good for the school. It's a once in a lifetime thing," said parent Michelle Potter.

But there was a problem - a problem not uncommon for launches.

Liftoff was scheduled for 6:03 p.m. But around 5 p.m., there was an announcement that the launch may not happen. Weather, especially strong winds, gave the launch only a 30 percent chance of happening.

There was a 30-minute window for any launch to occur, but at 6:25 p.m. the launch was scrubbed. They would try again Friday evening.

The children and their parents took the delay in stride.

Some students said they were not surprised.

"It's kind of what I expected," said fifth-grader James Pohl. "There was a 70 percent chance it wouldn't go."

Science experiment payloads created by students and launched into space are not uncommon. But those experiments usually are built by university graduate students. According to NASA, this is the first time a U.S. grade school, St. Thomas More Cathedral School in Arlington, built a CubeSat, a four-cubic-inch package weighing less than three pounds, packed with a payload of scientific experiments.

The satellite is named St. Thomas More Cathedral School Satellite-1 or STMSat-1. The payload will rendezvous with the International Space Station (ISS), where astronauts will place the satellite into orbit.

The project began in April 2012, when Joe Pelligrino, the father of a student and a NASA Goddard engineer, saw the Cathedral School students form the image of the space shuttle in the parking lot of the school when the Discovery shuttle flew piggy-back over Arlington on a modified 747 from Florida to its final home at the Smithsonian's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly.

About 400 students had a hand in designing, building, testing and launching the satellite. Every class from pre-K to eighth-grade was involved. Every student had a job with a job description.

The main payload component is a small camera that will take a photograph every 30 seconds and transmit them to earth stations that will be shared by schools around the world. The satellite also will measure temperature in space. NASA provided the school with a special antenna to track the satellite.

There were some objects aboard that are not usually included in rocket launches - a Pope Francis medal blessed by the pope and donated by Sister Bernadette McManigal, diocesan superintendent of schools; a crucifix blessed by Father Robert J. Rippy, rector of the Cathedral of St. Thomas More; and a small metal container that holds personal items from a family who made a large donation to the satellite project.

Children were given gift bags and parents received Boeing hats, and everyone had an afternoon to remember.

Friday's launch also was scrubbed because of weather. Ditto Saturday's attempt.

Finally, at 4:44 p.m. Dec. 6, the rocket successfully took off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., for a rendezvous with the ISS. The CubeSat will be deployed in late January.

"I'm just so excited for all the students, teachers and

parents (who) supported this mission," said Nelda D. Thomas, assistant principal. "This wouldn't have happened without the support of our community."

Thomas said that the photographs and measurements taken by the St. Thomas More CubeSat will benefit scientists and students around the world.

There was another reason for her enthusiasm about the launch.

"I'm excited that we had a religious payload."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015