PHILADELPHIA — In recent years, students at Northeast High School have virtually saved mankind from a meteor, discovered water on Mars and repaired the International Space Station. But their current mission to establish a habitat on the moon was nearly aborted because of education budget cuts.
The Space Research Center, started 52 years ago as the first NASA-recognized high school space program, was saved by more than $13,000 in donations after the nearly broke Philadelphia school district could not afford to fund it.
The money allowed students Thursday to launch their annual two-day simulated mission, which is staged in an actual Apollo training capsule and 21-foot-long homemade space shuttle simulator. They spent the night at school and planned to finish the mission Friday.
Now, supporters hope the attention and momentum will enable them to modernize badly outdated equipment and promote the program's value in the national conversation on the importance of STEM education — science, technology, engineering and math.
"It means so much to the students," said program director Joseph Connelly. "It's really difficult to find something in the school that promotes STEM understanding and is also super-fun."
The program, nicknamed Project SPARC, has its roots in the U.S.-Soviet space race. NASA donated the capsule and initially maintained an affiliation with the school. But that relationship languished and, as district funding waned, so did upkeep — but not student enthusiasm.
On Thursday, students sat at the Mission Control console with walkie-talkies as they acted out their scripted liftoff of Ares and Delta rockets headed to establish a permanent habitat on the moon. Flat-screen monitors offered views of "astronauts" inside the simulator as well as images of what the space travelers might be seeing.
Yet the mission was almost impossible. In December, Connelly broke the news that district officials were cutting all non-athletic extracurricular activities.
"I was completely heartbroken," said flight director Jeremy Cruz, an 18-year-old senior. "I felt like I was losing another family."
So students began publicizing their plight. Program alumni — many of whom went on to careers in science-related fields — stepped up with a crowdfunding website and the creation of an advisory board.
The school hopes to partner with universities and engineers to further improve the experience for students, who have creatively pursued the stars despite shortcomings in resources.
"Instead of complaining and walking away, these students have embraced the program," said Burton Dicht, a 1977 alum who spearheaded the fundraising. "The ability to make the best use of what you have is great preparation for real life."
The students are not alone in dealing with limited funds. NASA severely scaled back outreach and education last year to comply with mandatory federal budget reductions. Yet even as jobs in STEM fields are projected to increase far above other occupations through 2020, only 16 percent of American high school seniors are proficient in math and interested in a related career, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Gary Rosenzweig, an alum now living in Denver, said his job as a mobile app and website designer stems directly from his experience with the school program in the 1980s. He recently donated eight new computers.
"They should be building the foundation of their careers and lives," he wrote in an email. "SPARC is a place where students can do that."