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Kushner idea chosen for space odyssey
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Kushner idea chosen for space odyssey

Astronauts to perform experiment designed by ninth-grade team

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

A composting experiment designed by students at Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston will launch into space in April, as part of a partnership between the Israel-based Ramon Foundation and NASA.

Designed by a group of five ninth-grade girls, the project makes Kushner the first school outside of Israel to participate in Ramon SpaceLab, an annual middle school program now in its third year.

Experiments from Kushner and six other schools will be sent to the International Space Station, where astronaut scientists will perform them.

Kushner is a beneficiary agency of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.

The SpaceLab and the Ramon Foundation were created in memory of Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut in space, and his son, Asaf, a fighter pilot killed in a training accident six years after his father was lost in the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster.

On Feb. 27, Colonel (Res.) Ariel Brikman, CEO of the Ramon Foundation and a mentor for some of the participating schools, came to Kushner to address seventh-, eighth-, and ninth-graders together, and then, separately, just the 15 or so students participating in the after-school club created for the Ramon SpaceLab project. Led by Livingston High School teacher Jeff Tabachnick (who happens to be on paternity leave there), they have been meeting since the beginning of the year, first brainstorming, then developing several of the ideas, finally selecting the composting experiment as well as a backup exploring some of the properties of bacteria in space.

Kushner was selected based on the ties of one of its student’s parents to Rona Ramon, Ilan’s widow, who established the foundation, and the willingness of school donors to cover the costs associated with participation. “We met at the AIPAC conference last year, and she asked if we’d be interested in participating,” said parent Marissa Stadtmauer, whose son Koby, a ninth-grader, is part of the after-school group working on the experiment. When she was in Israel later in the year, Stadtmauer met with the foundation and learned they were indeed interested in branching out to schools outside of Israel. It wasn’t a hard sell, and it didn’t take long to work out the details necessary for Kushner to participate, Stadtmauer said.

The goal of the Kushner experiment is to find out how the zero-gravity environment in space affects the speed of decomposition during composting. The group will send some compost with a small amount of fresh shredded carrots up with the astronauts, who will take photos at regular intervals to track progress. At the same time, the group will track a control experiment at Kushner and compare the results.

Originally, the girls who designed it believed the carrots would decompose more slowly in a weightless environment. “We now think the carrots will aerate more without gravity, so it could work better than on earth without gravity pushing down,” Rose Ginsberg told Brikman. “And if that’s the case, we could do more composting in space and less on earth.”

Brikman asked, “How much time will you need? Is one month enough?”

“It’s hard to tell,” members of the group replied.

He responded, “Every experiment has its limits. This is your limit” — a down-to-earth lesson from a gravity-defying endeavor.

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