Two weeks ago, NASA released an insanely beautiful video of the Japanese Hayabusa spacecraft exploding over the Australian Outback. Turns out the video was planned and shot by a couple high schoolers from a NASA DC-8 aircraft. Feeling inadequate yet?
In 2009, science teacher Ron Dantowitz gave three of his students a project, asking them to plan a mission to record the disintegration of a spacecraft. It was presented as a hypothetical situation to the kids—James Breitmeyer, Brigitte Berman, and Yiannis Karavas, all from Brookline, Massachusetts—but Dantowitz, an expert in "optical observations, tracking, and spectroscopy," had actually been asked by NASA to participate in the real deal: The Hayabusa Re-entry Airborne Observing Campaign, a mission to record video of the Japanese spacecraft, which had been out gathering material from an asteroid, as it re-entered the atmosphere.
After six months of work, Dantowitz let them in on the secret—and in June, the three high schoolers took off in a DC-8 and recorded the video themselves.
"It was quiet and cold and dark as we waited," says Breitmeyer. "We were all a bit jittery. We knew all our hard work over the past year came down to this moment. A voice on the intercom broke the silence – 10, 9, 8, ….3, 2, and then someone shouted 'there it is!'
"As our screens lit up with the burning bus and the small capsule I was so excited I could have jumped right out of my chair," says Berman. "But I didn't. I knew I needed to concentrate in case something went wrong with our cameras or monitors; if I was in an uncontrollable frenzy this would not be possible."
"After the main bus deteriorated you could see the capsule still intact," says Breitmeyer. "Then the capsule decelerated, and we lost sight of it. It was over. We all started yelling and cheering – we practically rocked the plane! The same people who had been biting their fingernails minutes ago were now shouting and laughing."
That's Brigitte Berman, who, at age 16, is "the youngest person to have ever joined a NASA DC-8 flight research team." (When I was 16, I was writing "NIRVANA" and "THE GET-UP KIDS" on my All-Stars in ballpoint pen and getting a B in Physics.) The three students will be co-authors on a bunch of papers that will be submitted next year, and will even write their own papers for submission to peer-reviewed journals before they graduate.