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Space Station sendoff finally arrives for Buffalo's young 'Spud Launchers'

When you take a glance at the night sky in the coming weeks, think about the "Spud Launchers" – the three budding scientists from Buffalo, whose potato experiment will be orbiting up there somewhere inside the International Space Station.

The three Buffalo Public School students – Gabriella Melendez, Toriana Cornwell and Shaniylah Welch – will travel to Cape Canaveral, Fla., next week to watch the launching of the rocket that finally will carry their science experiment to the space laboratory.

The honor was bestowed upon the girls in 2015, when they were among the winners of a national science competition sponsored by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education. The education center partners with NASA and NanoRacks, a leader in the commercial space industry, to inspire the next generation of scientists and space explorers.

The three girls – who attended Hamlin Park School 74 together – will test whether 20 tiny potatoes squeezed into a small, half-inch tube can survive space travel. Upon return to earth six weeks later, their experiment will be returned to them for planting inside a University at Buffalo greenhouse.

It's an area of interest, particularly with NASA cultivating the ability to grow food in space in preparation for longer space missions and hoping maybe one day to plant the crop in a controlled dome on Mars.

The rocket launch was supposed to happen last spring, but the three girls have been waiting patiently – Toriana and Shaniylah are now in high school – as a number of delays pushed back the mission to this month, said Andrew Franz, the Hamlin Park teacher who served as an adviser for the project.

Their experiment already has been shipped off in preparation for the launch and thanks to donations, the girls – who call themselves the "Spud Launchers" – will be there to watch. They'll head to Florida and be there Feb. 13-16 with Franz, school Principal Patrick Cook and Ina Ferguson, liaison for WNY STEM Hub.

WNY STEM Hub, which coordinated the competition locally, is a nonprofit created to steer students toward the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

"It's a huge relief for the girls," Franz said. "We already put our tube with the potatoes in the mail and we won't see them again until March or April."

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