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The Right Stuff

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In the argot of astronautics, the bland phrase "multi-axis simulator'' masks the ruthless efficiency of a device designed to test the limits of human endurance. Not surprisingly, taking a spin in a machine that approximates the sensation of tumbling in a wayward spacecraft is something of a rite of passage at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center's Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala.

To the sadistic delight of bystanders, the rider climbs into a caged platform suspended in the center of an enormous, three-ringed metal gyroscope. Though locked in place to allow riders to mount and dismount, the entire assembly is rigged so that the seated occupant swivels smoothly, swiftly, and randomly in any direction through a 360-degree arc.

Once footstraps are secured and a chest harness fastened, a camp counselor sets the contraption in motion with a few hefty shoves before letting a tireless and coldly efficient electric motor take over.

Then the world rips loose from its moorings. You appear to be dashing headlong into a wall, only to stop short a split second later and somersault backward. Blurred faces, overhead lights, and swatches of carpet flash in and out of your field of vision. Sweat beads on your forehead, and you wonder how long your stomach can endure. But, if you manage to fight off the nausea, an involuntary whoop of delight may erupt from a hidden recess you haven't tapped since childhood.

Barbara Lauer, band director at Shakopee Elementary School in Eden Prairie, Minn., knows all about it. "Ah, that's cool,'' she sighs contentedly, sinking to the carpeted floor after a session in the chair.

A space buff who teaches aeronautics and astronautics during her prep period at Shakopee, Lauer has come to Space Camp to pit herself against such mechanical beasts as the multi-axis simulator and the "manned maneuvering unit,'' which approximates the motions of the rocket pack used by spacewalking astronauts. A highlight of Lauer's week so far was spending the better part of an afternoon hanging above the floor at the end of a 30-foot boom, helping assemble a tubing framework on a mock space-shuttle mission. "It's like you die and go to heaven,'' she says of the experience.

Of course, camp officials hope that Lauer and the other 31 teachers attending the week-long Space Academy for Educators will carry the thrill of their experiences back to their classrooms. For Lauer, that is a given. The program, she says, "opens up horizons for the children that we, as young ladies, didn't even know about.'' Lauer concedes, however, that what really drew her to Space Camp was the chance to "pilot'' a space shuttle in a full-size simulator and to "run'' a shuttle mission from a high-tech control room.

She isn't alone. "This is a dream for me,'' exclaims Jerry Iacona, a 4th grade teacher at Robinson Elementary School in Groveville, N.J. "I've sent plenty of kids here, but I never thought I'd come myself.'' Iacona says he was able to enroll in the program only because the Civil Air Patrol agreed to pay his $650 tuition. In exchange, he had to promise to help teachers back home develop lessons that use various aspects of space exploration to teach science and mathematics.

As Iacona explains all this, he is recovering from the exertion and elation of a simulated spacewalk. "To finally get up there and do that...I have a new-found respect for what the astronauts do,'' he says. "This keeps you going as an educator. This kind of charges my battery. I'm ready to go into the classroom again and kill 'em.''

Although all of the simulated activities clearly get them pumped up and excited, the teachers say other aspects of the camp curriculum are equally stimulating--if in a different way. They point, for example, to the scientific presentations they've attended at the nearby George C. Marshall Space Flight Center and to the teacher resource center, where videotapes and computer software can be copied for classroom use.

Despite their enthusiasm, many of the teachers are worried that the thrill of space exploration that they knew growing up in the 1960s and early '70s is lost on today's children. Several lament that the 25th anniversary of Woodstock seemed to attract more attention than the silver anniversary of the first lunar landing. A quarter century after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, "it's almost as if it's become old hat,'' says Patricia Beer, a teacher at Center Line High School in Southfield, Mich.

Mark Rice, who teaches in a small rural district in Stringer, Miss., points out that most American students don't realize that many of the technologies developed for space programs have improved the quality of their everyday lives. Rice, a former military pilot, is about as gung-ho on NASA as a teacher can be. His students, he notes proudly, recently participated in a live video conference with astronauts aboard the shuttle Discovery. He fears that the United States may lose its footing on the world stage unless today's young people take up the challenge of space exploration. "We learn a lot about Columbus and about Magellan, but the [Apollo] program was just as daring and dangerous, if not more so,'' he says. "It's one of the greatest adventures that ever happened. Yet kids know very little about it because it's just not in the textbooks.''

Exposing youngsters to the challenge of space exploration is precisely what rocketry pioneer Wernher von Braun had in mind when he suggested two decades ago that the United States build a summer camp emphasizing applied math and science the way others focus on cheerleading, horseback riding, or canoeing.

During World War II, von Braun led a team of German rocket experts that developed the V-2, a primitive ballistic missile that the Nazis used to terrorize London. He and many members of his team later were brought to the United States by President Truman to continue their research and work. They settled in Huntsville to work at the U.S. Army's Redstone Arsenal. There, they eventually developed the Saturn V rocket, which was instrumental in putting men on the moon.

During their week at camp, the teachers listen to an authoritative, yet often lighthearted, presentation by Georg von Tiesenhausen, a member of the original von Braun team who now holds a patent on Saturn V technology. "I was a member of the team that sent men to the moon and brought them safely back again,'' von Tiesenhausen says, "one of the greatest events of the 20th century.''

At von Braun's urging, the Alabama legislature in the early 1970s funded the construction of the Space and Rocket Center to showcase some of the nation's technical achievements. Edward Buckbee, a former public affairs officer for the von Braun team and director of the center, established the nonprofit Space Camp in 1982 as a way to reach a wider--and younger--audience.

Since then, more than 120,000 children have attended camp courses. And approximately 3,200 teachers have been through the camp's Space Academy for Educators since it began in 1987.

Not all academy activities are challenging or scientific in nature. Some, such as building model rockets and fashioning space helmets out of bleach bottles, are decidedly simplistic. But Karen Widenhofer, the camp's curriculum manager, says even these activities serve an important purpose, particularly for elementary teachers looking for gimmicks to excite children about science. "As you can see,'' she says, "it's not high-tech, but that's just the point. It's something that they can take back into the classroom.''

One of the main things Peggy Ann Kunz is going to take back with her to Milwaukee's Bryant Elementary School is enthusiasm. She says the camp experience has challenged her both physically and mentally. Von Tiesenhausen's explanation of black holes and other cosmological phenomena, she says, helped her come as close as she ever has to understanding some complex science.
"With him, I almost had it; I was almost there,'' she says. "They're giving us such a gift. If we could just spark in our students what they've sparked in us.''
--Peter West

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