Can you imagine being in high school and getting invited to be special guest at a real rocket launch? That's exactly what happened to Sara Ma and Dorothy Chen, Michigan natives and winners of the YouTube Space Lab competition. As part of their prize package, the teenage friends got to travel to Japan, where they watched up close and personal as their very own experiments were shot up by rocket to the International Space Station. On the eve of the Space Lab finale, we asked them about this incredible experience.
How long was your flight from Michigan to Japan? Did you have any interesting layovers?
The flight was 13-14 hours long. We had no layovers. I couldn’t sleep on the plane at all, so the flight felt extremely long.
What cities in Japan did you get to see? Any significant landmarks?
I just saw Tokyo and Tanegashima on my Japan trip. I was most impressed with the different landscapes of Tokyo: you can see the old classic side in the Asakusa district, the modern electric city in the Akihabara district, and the fashion-forward/young-teen scene in the Shibuya district. Tanegashima was relatively isolated from modern activity, and I really was able to enjoy the amazing nature and calmness that you can’t get in the bustling city.
Describe the overall experience, and emotions you felt, while watching your experiment launch on the JAXA rocket heading to the ISS.
I was just drowning in excitement and anticipation from start to finish. It was drizzling slightly before the launch, and the rain and wind picked up right before lift-off, which added so much more drama and excitement to the moment. I remember feeling extremely proud as our experiment was being launched into space. I feel so grateful towards this whole YouTube Space Lab experience for giving us this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!
What was your vantage point for the rocket launch? Were you outside in a field, in a tower?
We were on the rooftop of this observatory building that was 3.5 km away from the actual launch site. There were also several media groups and private tour groups watching, but it wasn’t crowded and we had an amazing view of the launch.
Were you close enough to hear the rocket launch? Was it loud, faint, somewhere in between?
I heard that you could hear the rocket launch from anywhere on the island, but we were the closest the general public is allowed to go—3.5 km away. The launch sound was almost deafening but the most amazing part was how you could feel the ground vibrating beneath your feet as the rocket lifted off.
How long was the launch from start to finish?
The whole launch was definitely really short—probably less than a minute. If the sky wasn’t filled with dark rain clouds, we probably could have seen it for a longer time after the take-off.
Did you get to meet any of the astronauts?
Sadly, we didn’t get to meet any of the astronauts, but we learned that Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide had gone up to the ISS the week before with American astronaut Sunita Williams and that they were expecting the arrival of our experiment. However, Dorothy and I met several friendly JAXA employees as well as the Bioserve employees that personally oversaw the development of our experiment and its safe delivery into the rocket.
Did you see any other JAXA facilities or sights?
We saw the Space Museum at Tanegashima and received a personal bus tour around the Space Center grounds.
What are your expectations for the outcome of your experiment, which will be executed this fall by astronauts on the ISS?
We expect bacteria grown in space to be more virulent than the bacteria grown on Earth. Hopefully, there is no contamination of the bacteria in space and everything works out the way it should and we’re able to see our bacteria growing.
Was this your first international trip? If no, was this your first time traveling to Japan?
I’ve been to other foreign countries in North America and Asia, but this was my first trip to Japan.
Did you eat strictly sushi and other Japanese specialties? What was the food like – good, great, abysmal?
I definitely tried to stick to the local food, and I’m glad I did! The food was amazing. Speaking as someone who loves eating adventurously, I loved the freshness of the sushi, the sweetness of the Japanese rice, and the speediness of the Japanese food service. I wish America had more authentic Japanese food!
Did you use your Lenovo Ultrabook during your trip? If yes, what did you use it for (posting pictures to Facebook, communicating with family and friends back home via Skype, documenting the trip, listening to music/watching movies online)?
I had thought about packing my Lenovo laptop, but then I decided that I’d be having too much fun to be doing anything online. It was a laptop-free trip, but I think I spent a whole day posting pictures on the Ultrabook when I got home.
Will you pursue a career in space? If so, do you have any idea specifically what you would want to do in the field?
I haven’t really thought about my career yet. I’m just trying to finish high school and make it to college in one piece right now! I love science, but I can’t to rule any specific fields out yet. Got to keep my options open!
What else have you done this summer besides the trip to Japan for the rocket launch?
At the start of summer, I was a volunteer camp counselor and went to Chicago for a volunteer service program with a couple of my friends. Recently, Dorothy and I went to band camp and just had our first home game performance. My summer has been really exciting and fun-packed this year!
What was the best part of your trip?
The launch, which exceeded all of my expectations, definitely came in first, but the food ranked a close second! Oh so yummy!
How has the entire Space Lab competition experience affected your life (from entering the science contest, to developing your experiment, to being selected as a regional winner and then global winner and finally traveling to the other side of the world to see something you created from scratch head into space)? Please describe as many of these moments as possible.
The whole Space Lab experience still feels surreal sometimes! From the first email we got to the Washington DC and Japan trip, I’m so grateful that Dorothy and I decided to enter this contest together. It has shown me a lot about teamwork, believing in your dreams, and living in the moment.
What’s next? School, more experiments, more travel?
Up next is all about finishing high school and starting college applications. I definitely hope I am able to go back to Japan some time, but right now, I’m looking forward to more of the Space Lab experience, especially the Live Stream!