Unmanned rocket carrying Fayette Academy science project explodes after liftoff

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SOMERVILLE, Tenn. -- The Fayette Academy students who watched a rocket explode with their experiment on board are back home.

The three students were at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on the Virginia coast, when six months of their hard work blew to pieces.

It's an experience one of the students said he'll never forget.

"Everyone was happy as it starts to lift off. Everyone was clapping hands and everything," he said.

But within six seconds, Fayette Academy sophomore Mark Montague's spirits were shattered.

Montague watched as the Antares rocket carrying a science experiment from Fayette Academy exploded into a million pieces.

"We didn't believe our eyes. We were asking ourselves, 'is this just a dream. did this actually happen.' We didn't believe our eyes," said Montague, who is the principle project investigator.

The experiment, which involved the effects of the Reshi mushroom on E-coli and a form of Myeloid leukemia, was part of a 5,000 lb. payload headed to the International Space Station.

The unmanned rocket was worth about $200 million.

Three Fayette Academy students were chosen to represent the more than 300 students who worked half a year on the experiment.

They, their parents, and instructors were close enough to the explosion to feel the ground shake, but were never in danger.

"We were the closest observation area allowed. We were one 1.7 miles, so we were even closer than the national media was. But it was well within the safety zone," said Donna Burrus, co-director of the Student Space Flight Program at Fayette Academy.

She said it was clear to her something was wrong with the rocket shortly after liftoff. She said she believes NASA controllers manually destroyed the rocket before it could gain altitude and endanger the public.

Wednesday afternoon, Montague flew into Memphis International Airport feeling a bit disappointed, but like any scientist, he's ready to get back to the drawing board.

"I knew that my experiment is going to go up, you know, sooner or later to the International Space Station. But I was really sad for the company and the countless hours they put into that rocket and project," said Montague.

Burrus said even though the science experiment was destroyed, she has been assured students will have another chance to get their project into space.