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Hard Lesson: Rocket Blast Teaches Teens Cost of Discovery

Maryam Kafra, Regina Alsabagh, Farah Sabah and Israa Alfadhli watched their water purification experiment go up in flames when Science Orbital's Antares rocket exploded October 28, 2014.

Maryam Kafra, Regina Alsabagh, Farah Sabah and Israa Alfadhli watched their water purification experiment go up in flames when Science Orbital's Antares rocket exploded October 28, 2014. Courtesy Madison District Public Schools / Courtesy Madison District Public Schools

The explosion of an unmanned Antares rocket bound for the International Space Station taught a hard lesson to students across the country whose science experiments were included in the payload: In science and in space, failure sometimes comes with the territory.

"I think the lesson is, sometimes in life things don't go the way you think they're going to go," Randy Speck, the superintendent of Madison District Public Schools in Michigan, told NBC News.

That's especially true for a quartet of students in Speck's district: Four Iraqi refugee girls whose project was one of the 18 student flight experiments aboard the cargo ship attached to Orbital Sciences' failed Antares rocket meant to carry supplies to the International Space Station. The projects were chosen from among nearly 1,500 proposals submitted by students in school districts in the U.S. and Canada under the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program.

Teams investigate unmanned rocket explosion 2:31

Speck's Iraqi student foursome at Wilkinson Middle School designed an experiment that would have tested whether iodine tablets can purify water in space. Instead, they watched in shock as the rocket -- and their project that took four months of collaboration done in both Arabic and English -- burst into flame.

"When the rocket started going up and there was a lot of fire, I was surprised," said Regina Alsabagh, 14, who watched the launch at her brother's house. "I was sad and scared if there was a person on the rocket. I didn't know."

Regina and her three teammates -- all of whom fled to the U.S. with their families -- were immediately concerned that a crew had been hurt in the explosion, said their enrichment teacher Angel Abdulahad (who helped translate some portions of the girls' answers in an interview with NBC News).

Once the students were assured that the craft was unmanned, the tears flowed for their lost project.

"We put a lot of effort into an experiment and we watched it go into flames," said Farah Sabah, 14.

Speck, meanwhile, was rendered speechless as he watched the failed launch.

"I'm supposed to be more educated than this, but frankly, last night just sucked," he said. "I was watching in my office and a custodian asked if he could peek. When it exploded he said, 'Well, that doesn’t look good.' I said, 'It certainly doesn't.' He went back to work and I stared at my screen for 10 minutes."

A local news station contacted Speck about the loss of the experiment, and Alsabagh, Sabah and their 13-year-old teammates Maryam Kafra and Israa Alfadhli appeared on the show. Speck told them during the appearance that they will have the chance to re-submit their experiment next year -- at no cost to the district -- which immediately cheered them.

Afterward Speck took the girls to breakfast at a diner near the school, where "a bunch of old guys who eat there every morning had seen the girls on TV, so they pointed and clapped when we walked in. It was just so special, and that really helped their spirits."

"Yesterday I was so sad," Alfadhli said. "Today I feel better because I know no one got hurt, and we'll be able to do it again."

Alsabagh agreed: "I'm so happy we got another chance because that's why I am here, living, to do something that will be good. My future self will be thankful for it."

Kafra said failure is part of the science process, "which is beautiful. I really like that part of science."

Sabah, who said she had no interest in science before embarking upon the experiment, said their project is about more than a mere space launch -- it's about the lack of access to drinkable water in the girls' mother country.

"I want anybody who hears our words not to lose hope," Sabah said, adding that people in Iraq sometimes had to drink dirty water. "If we could help them purify the water that would be such an amazing thing."

Speck has "been crying all day, too," he said. "This is the coolest thing I've ever been a part of in my life. These girls are truly amazing. The little experiment they created in room 109 in our little school is part of a national news story."

Watch Video of Antares Rocket Explosion From The Air 1:44

Other schools across the nation are mourning the loss of their experiments, some of which took a year of work, along with Speck and his students. But like the Michigan team, these young scientists were surprisingly upbeat.

At San Marino High School in San Marino, California, science teacher Wyeth Collo's two-boy experiment team "learned the tough lesson that in real science, there is failure. From there you learn, re-evaluate, re-tool and do it again."

In Kalamazoo, Michigan, a four-girl team at St. Monica Catholic School raced to finish a volleyball game that coincided with the launch -- only to watch the rocket explode on iPad and laptop screens with their parents on the sidelines.

"It was a very hard thing," said St. Monica's principal Becky Reits. "But today we have a fifth-grade class that is discussing space exploration, saying, it's a wonderful thing but is it worth the risk of life? It's about getting kids to ponder and think critically about what all this research means. Make it something positive."

One of the St. Monica's students, 14-year-old Delaney Hewitt -- whose father is a chemist -- said the explosion taught her hard truths she will remember for life.

"The lesson you can take from this is, you need to expect the unexpected and take risks, but also be cautious," she said. "Because you never know how things will turn out. And that can end up being a good thing."