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Amateur Space Scientists Get Second Chance After Rocket Explosion

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

Young students who watched in devastation as their science projects exploded along with an unmanned Antares rocket bound for the International Space Station in October have gotten a second chance. Astronauts finally conducted their experiments in space over the past few weeks, and the results are slated to head back to Earth for students to study on Tuesday.

"I just can't believe [astronauts] are actually touching something we designed," Regina Alsabagh, an eighth-grader at Wilkinson Middle School in Michigan, told NBC News. "It shows our hard work is not lost, even though we were so sad before."

It's long-overdue payoff for Alsabagh's team and the other 17 student groups whose experiments were selected from among nearly 1,500 proposals to the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) -- which arranges for astronauts to conduct experiments in space while students replicate them in the classroom.

The projects were originally meant to make it to space in a cargo ship attached to an Orbital Sciences Antares rocket that launched October 28. But student teams across the nation watched, horrified, as the unmanned craft exploded a few moments after it took off near the coast of Virginia.

But the next day, the teams found out SSEP had quickly arranged for the student groups to get a second chance. The catch: They had only two weeks to re-do their projects (at no cost to their districts). Those re-worked experiments finally made it to space on a SpaceX rocket that launched successfully on January 10.

Astronauts at the International Space Station finally began working on the students' projects in late January, and they're due back on Earth on Feb. 10.

Unmanned Antares Rocket Explodes Seconds After Launch 1:00

It's been a long and at times heartbreaking journey for Regina Alsabagh and her teammates Farah Sabah, Maryam Kafra and Israa Alfadhli, all of whom came to Michigan after fleeing Iraq with their families.

NBC News first spoke to the teens the day after the Antares explosion, and they were devastated. The girls had spent four months collaborating in both Arabic and English to design an experiment that tests whether iodine tablets can purify water in space.

The girls -- aided by district superintendent Randy Speck and enrichment teacher Angel Abdulahad (who translated the girls' answers in an interview with NBC News last week) -- raced to re-do the project in time for the Space X launch.

"I watched the rocket fly up in the air, and my future flew with it. I wished I could have been flying right along with it," Alsabagh told NBC News.

A second chance

Abdulahad, the girls' teacher, said the team was "just amazed" when he told them their experiment was in action on the ISS. "The realization won't set in until the experiment comes back [from space], I think," he said.

The Michigan team has been tracking the progress of its experiment on the SSEP site. Each time the astronauts completed an experiment step in space, the students did the same on earth two or three days later.

"This is not a fluffy, abstract education program," Jeff Goldstein, the founder and national program director of SSEP, told NBC News. "This is real science with real setbacks, and students are stepping to the plate as real microgravity researchers. This [Michigan] team has done a remarkable job coming from a far-off place and getting right to it."

Randy Speck, the superintendent, agreed.

"It has been truly amazing to see their fortitude," Speck said. "They haven't let disappointment get them down. So much has happened in just a few months, and they've really handled it like adults."

In addition to juggling a second version of the experiment with school work, the girls have also been featured in multiple media outlets across the country and were honored with awards in their hometown. At a ceremony honoring the girls, a city council member looked at them and said, "You helped take this little town and put us on the map with people around the world," according to Speck.

It's an opportunity and a lesson the girls wouldn't have had in their native Iraq, they said.

"Nothing like this would have happened for us," Alsabagh said. "The idea of working in science and space, and all of this recognition and support....It's what makes us stronger."

Sabah added: "This is is us saying, we're here. We did this. We didn't give up." When she first came to the U.S., she was afraid to ask any questions, she said. Working on the experiment helped her "open up" and "feel a sense of belonging" that she had never felt before.

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A community changed

"Seeing this happen gives me the belief that there is nothing I can't dream of. I know that whatever I imagine, I can do," Sabah said.

The girls' "confidence and belief in themselves and knowing who they are -- it's night and day," Abdulahad said. "They used to go from class to class quickly and quietly. And now they walk around like they own the school, with this new level of confidence."

That confidence is catching, Abdulahad and Speck said, as the community at large has taken an interest in not only the girls but also science and space education.

"I call it the 'space bug,'" Speck said.

Abdulahad routinely fields questions from newly interested students and parents who want their own space adventure, he said.

"I'm on the front lines with this, and even the kids in elementary school are asking, 'When are we going to get to do what the girls did?'" he said. "And I promise them: Next year. We are not stopping. Not even a disaster can stop us."