Palatine Scouts' STEM project blasts off to space

After more than two years of working on their project, a group of Palatine Boy Scouts realized the dream of a lifetime: They watched their project blast off in a NASA flight headed for the International Space Station.

Members of Troop 209 and their leaders traveled to the Kennedy Space Center in Coco Beach, Florida, to witness their award-winning project launch.

"All my emotions came out in a loud roar as the rocket rumbled and slowly went into space," said Elliot Lee, a sophomore at Fremd High School.

Lee and another member of the troop, Andrew Frank, who is a senior at Palatine High School, were chosen to describe their project on NASA TV.

Their visit included accepting the "Dream Up Expedition in Space" award from the CEO of NanoRacks, a Houston-based company that helps students raise money to fund testing their experiments in space aboard the International Space Station.

The highlight of their trip was gathering at the launch site, located adjacent to Apollo/Saturn V Visitor Center, to watch their work travel up in space for more testing.

"For me, the part of the launch that was truly amazing was imagining the thousands of pounds of force behind our experiment, sending it into space," Frank said. "It's really a great representation of the magnitude of what we've done."

The experiment they created traveled into space inside a small box inside the rocket. Essentially, the project aims to determine whether the rate a substance mutates is different in a zero-gravity space environment as compared to Earth.

"We're looking at the way cells mutate, as an indicator of cancer," troop member Ian Malek of Hoffman Estates said back in a Daily Herald interview in November, as they tried to wrap up their work.

Last week, two days after the launch, the Scouts learned their project had docked at the space station.

"I'm hoping to spot the station sometime in the next month to see our experiment flying by," Frank adds.

These Palatine Scouts are part of a subsection of their troop that is devoted to pursuing STEM challenges. In looking for projects, they learned of a design challenge offered by the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, in partnership with the Boy Scouts of America.

They spent months going through ideas and eventually came up with their project, which they called the Ames Project, or "Our Team Ames for Space." According to the troop, the name of the project is a play on words; AMES is a standard used to test the mutagenic potential of chemical compounds.

Their work continues even after the launch. Once their project returns, they will start to analyze all the data, including looking at thousands of photos that document any mutations, and ultimately conduct the experiment on earth to see if the results differ from those in space.

Walking them through their research has been a team of Scout leaders and volunteer mentors, including Mike Koehler of Rolling Meadows. Koehler spent more than 20 years with Honeywell Aerospace, helping to develop key components for the International Space Station.

"I have been involved in numerous space programs in my career, and as I told the boys, it never gets old," Koehler said. "Each project is more exciting than the previous one, because each one starts a new exploration of the unknown.

"Each mission is a long journey to the launch," he adds. "Each launch brings a new exploration of our universe."

The magnitude of their work is not lost on the Scouts.

"I can say with certainty that what we did has changed Scouting in this country forever," Frank says. "And it's shocking that we got to be a part of that."

Scouts Daniel Yu and Elliot Lee are interviewed by local press before the launch of their project to the International Space Station. Courtesy of Boy Scout troop 209
Scouts Saipranav Venkatakrishnan and Elliot Lee present their project to the local press. Courtesy of Boy Scout troop 209
The Scouts gather before the launch for a photo. Courtesy of Boy Scout troop 209
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