Illinois youth compete to launch real-world space missions at national competition

youth pose in front of a large rocket

MERRITT ISLAND, Fla. – Youth from Illinois, Florida, Indiana, and Arizona gained valuable STEM experiences as they planned and competed to launch real-world space missions at the “Go For Launch” event at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex on July 12-14.

Delegates to the competition have served as Space Ambassadors in their home states, exploring a comprehensive STEM initiative called “4-H in Space.” Delegates were chosen through a rigorous selection process.

“Youth were selected through a competitive application process and asked why they wanted to participate. A select few were invited to become members based on their background and STEM prowess,” says Keith Jacobs, University of Illinois Extension 4-H youth development specialist.

The state teams have spent the spring and summer immersed in space curriculum, career pathway training, and learning workshops focused on coding, mechanical engineering, and astronomy in preparation for the event.

The Illinois delegation includes: Xander Albertson, Kendall County; Riley Bourquin, Jo Daviess County; Dhurv Rebba, McLean County; Krish Nangia, DuPage County; Aaron Jenkins, Kane COunty; Marie Polk, Champaign County; Seyed Ahmad Dastgheib, Champaign County; Caden Raquel, Champaign County; Jayden Thomas, Cook County; Mei-Lin Hayek, Champaign County; Lisa Tsou, Champaign County; D Angel Slater, Kane County; and Noah Polk, Champaign County.

The three-day competition facilitated by Higher Orbits, focuses on designing experiments that could make it to orbit on the International Space Station, under sponsorship of the International Space Station (ISS) National Laboratory. The winning team’s experiment will be conducted by real astronauts and launched to the ISS in 2023.

Illinois youth Krish Nangia of DuPage County participated in the winning multi-state team, “Team Space Goats.” Students were encouraged to design an experiment with sustainability in mind, because as the plan is to one day voyage to Mars, astronauts will be required to bring everything for the months-long trip with them.

Their experiment, “Growing Spirulina in Space,” focused on growing blue-green algae in microgravity conditions. The team will construct sealed containers filled with water and a small amount of the blue-green algae. Once launched, astronauts on the International Space Station will be able to monitor the bacterial growth through cameras placed above the sealed containers. These growth rates will be compared to controls that are under similar conditions on earth.

“I hope the youth from this trip take away that adventure mindset, and the genuine belief that anything they can imagine can be accomplished,” says Jacobs.

Those who wish to learn more about 4-H STEM programming may visit the 4-H website.

About Illinois 4-H: Illinois 4-H is the flagship youth development program of University of Illinois Extension and administered through the College of Agriculture, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences. 4-H grows true leaders, youth who are empowered for life today and prepared for a career tomorrow. The hands-on approach in 4-H gives young people guidance, tools, and encouragement, and then puts them in the driver’s seat to make great things happen. Independent research confirms the unparalleled impact of the 4-H experience, demonstrating that young people are four times more likely to contribute to their communities; two times more likely to make healthier choices; two times more likely to be civically active; and two times more likely to participate in STEM programs. 

About Extension:  Illinois Extension leads public outreach for University of Illinois by translating research into action plans that allow Illinois families, businesses, and community leaders to solve problems, make informed decisions, and adapt to changes and opportunities. 

Source:  Keith Jacobs, 4-H Youth Development Specialist, 4-H State Office, 

Writer:  Carissa Nelson, Media Communications Manager, 4-H State Office,