One Small Step

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Huntsville, Ala.

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, riding a machine that approximates the sensation of tumbling in a wayward spacecraft is something of a rite of passage here at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center's Space Camp.

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, when in use, the seated occupant swivels smoothly, swiftly, and randomly through 360 degrees of arc in any direction.

Once bootstraps are secured and a harness fastened at the chest, a camp counselor sets the contraption in motion with a few hefty shoves before turning the heavy lifting over to a tireless electric motor.

Then, the world rips loose from its moorings, and a split second later you appear to be dashing headlong into a wall, only to be stopped short and somersaulted backward. Blurred faces, overhead lights, and swatches of carpet flash in and out of your field of vision as sweat beads on your forehead, and you wonder how long your stomach can endure.

But if you can keep nausea at bay, an involuntary whoop of exhilaration may just erupt from a hidden recess of delight you haven't tapped since childhood. And the spectators, encouraged by your boldness, will cheer you on.

Barbara Lauer, the band director at Shakopee Elementary School in Eden Prairie, Minn., knows. "Ahh, that's cool," she sighs contentedly, sinking to the carpeted floor of the Space Camp training center after her spin in the simulator.

A space buff, Lauer devotes her free period to giving guest lectures about aeronautics and astronautics in other classes. She's come here to pit herself against such mechanical beasts as the m.a.s. and the "manned maneuvering unit," another simulator that mimics the motions of space-walking astronauts.

But so far, the highlight of her week has been spending the better part of an afternoon dangling at the end of a 30-foot boom while put-ting together a framework of tubes as part of a mock space-shuttle mission.

"It's like you die and go to heaven," she says, her eyes fixed on full-sized mock-ups of space shuttles and Mars landers scattered around the massive hall.

Real-Life Thrills

That feeling of exhilaration begins to explain why Lauer--and some 30 of her peers from across the country--attended a weeklong Space Academy for Educators here last month. They came to experience vicariously the thrill of space exploration in the hopes of carrying the fire back to the classroom.

Lauer's interest in space stretches back at least to the beginning of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Teacher-in-Space program, and she respectfully remembers the letter she received from Sharon Christa McAuliffe the day before the New Hampshire teacher died in the explosion of the shuttle Challenger.

But even Lauer, like many of her colleagues, concedes that the chance to pilot a space shuttle in a life-sized simulator or to run a shuttle mission from a high-tech "mission control room" is what drew her to Space Camp.

"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."

He could afford the $650 tuition, Iacona notes, only because the Civil Air Patrol paid his way to camp in exchange for a promise. He's agreed to help teachers back home develop practical lessons that teach science and mathematics through the prism of space-program applications.

As Iacona speaks, he's still recovering from the exertion and elation of a simulated space walk and waxing enthusiastic about how the experience will enhance his teaching. "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 now."

Bonnie Garcia, who teaches gifted 4th graders at Northwest Elementary School in Tampa, Fla., says the simulations will help her explain televised space missions to her students. "It gives us background we couldn't get any other way," she says.

But visiting educators are quick to add that they take home more than the lessons of teamwork and tension that the simulations teach. By week's end, they'll have reams of notes from frequent lectures by scientists from NASA's nearby George C. Marshall Space Flight Center. And teachers are also welcome to copy videotapes and software from a NASA-supported teacher-resource center.

Richard Washington, who runs an after-school education program for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America in Menlo Park, Calif., hopes to replicate the Space Camp experience for his audience of black and Hispanic youngsters back home. "I've got all of those [demonstrations] down to a tee," he says confidently, glancing down at his notes from a lecture on the physics of pendulums.

Space-Age Spirit

Despite their obvious enthusiasm, many teachers here worry that the sense of wonder they remember from the space program's heyday in the 1960's is lost on today's children.

After all, they note, the media hype over Woodstock--both new and old--eclipsed the silver anniversary of the first lunar landing. "It's almost as if it's become old hat to them," says Patricia Beer, a teacher at Center Line High School in Southfield, Mich., who was 30 years old when Neil Armstrong took that legendary giant leap for mankind.

The perception that space exploration has lost its allure for the public, and for young people in particular, also has NASA officials concerned--especially as Congressional support for space exploration shrinks. So, to help keep stars in the eyes of classroom teachers, Daniel S. Goldin, NASA's administrator, and a large contingent of current and former astronauts lectured, demonstrated new hardware, and distributed NASA curriculum materials at the National Science Teachers Association's annual meeting in Anaheim, Calif., earlier this year. (See Education Week, April 13, 1994.)

Even so, educators like Mark Rice, who teaches in a small rural district in Stringer, Miss., are concerned that U.S. students don't appreciate how the space program's many spin-off technologies improve their quality of life. Rice, a former military flyer, is about as gung ho on NASA as you could be. His students, he boasts, participated in a first-ever live video conference link with the astronauts aboard the space shuttle Discovery.

But Rice fears that history may repeat itself. Pointing to the decline of the great seafaring powers of centuries past, he wonders if the United States might face an inevitable decline if young people turn away from the challenge that space exploration presents.

"We learn a lot about Columbus and about Magellan," Rice says. "But the Apollo program was just as daring and dangerous, if not more so. It's one of the greatest adventures that ever happened. Yet, the kids know very little about it because it's just not in the textbooks."

Star-Studded History

Exposing young minds to the challenge of space exploration is precisely what Wernher von Braun, the German rocketry pioneer, envisioned two decades ago when he suggested educational summer camps. American camps, he said, needed to treat applied math and science with the same enthusiasm as cheerleading and canoeing.

Von Braun headed a team of German rocket experts that developed the V-2, a primitive ballistic missile that terrorized Britons during the closing days of World War II. The Truman Administration later brought von Braun and many of his colleagues to the United States to continue their research. They settled here in Huntsville to work at the U.S. Army's Redstone Arsenal.

That's where the von Braun team later developed the Saturn 5 rocket, which fulfilled President Kennedy's mandate to land a man on the moon.

"I was a member of the team that sent men to the moon and brought them safely back again," Georg von Tiesenhausen, a retired member of the von Braun team, told visiting teachers as he launched into an authoritative, yet often lighthearted, astronomy lecture. "One of the greatest events of the 20th century."

At von Braun's urging, the Alabama legislature funded the construction of the Space and Rocket Center in the early 1970's to showcase the nation's technical achievements. In 1982, Edward O. Buckbee, the museum's director, founded Space Camp as a nonprofit educational venture to reach a wider--and younger--audience.

More than 120,000 children have since completed Space Camp courses, and roughly 3,200 classroom teachers have enrolled in the Space Academy for Educators since it opened its doors in 1987.

Take-Home Lessons

Some might find it easy to dismiss parts of the Space Camp teacher curriculum--such as building model rockets and fashioning space helmets out of bleach bottles--as too simplistic. But Karen Widenhofer, Space Camp's curriculum manager and a former classroom teach-er, says teachers, especially at the elementary level, are hungry for gimmicks to excite children about science.

"As you can see, it's not 'high tech,' but that's just the point," she says. "It's something that they can take back into the classroom."

Other teachers worry that some Space Camp materials--like the scientifically accepted timeline for the evolution of the universe presented in one lecture--might be too controversial. "There's a line between space and religion," Washington told colleagues over lunch. "I don't know how parents are going to take that."

Despite such concerns, Peggy Ann Kunz, one of five Bryant Elementary School teachers sent here by the Milwaukee school district to help develop a cross-disciplinary elementary curriculum, says Space Camp offered all the right stuff.

For her, the curriculum's physical and mental challenges helped test her own physical limitations. And on the more cerebral side, she adds, von Tiesenhausen's explanation of black holes helped her understand complex scientific theory for the first time.

"With him, I almost had it, I was almost there," Kunz says. "They're just giving us such a gift. If we could just spark in our students what they've sparked in us."

Vol. 14, Issue 02

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