By Patti Wieser
We are at the Johnson Space Center today, where six teams of K-12 educators are developing curricula using their microgravity experiments. Next week, the teams will launch these experiments aboard NASA’s zero-gravity flights through a collaboration between PPPL and NASA under the Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program, thanks to the efforts of PPPL Science Education Head Andrew Zwicker.
The collaboration provides a unique experience for teachers to propose, design, fabricate, fly, and evaluate a reduced gravity investigation of their choice.
NASA’s Cynthia McArthur, addressing 80-plus program participants during an orientation session yesterday, emphasized that one of the goals in NASA education is to inspire students. “I want you to leave here empowered,” she said.
And how better to inspire students than to inspire their educators. The NASA-PPPL partnership exemplifies this mission — training the next generation of scientists, as well as those responsible for training the next generation — and mirrors the mission of PPPL’s Science Education Program and its head, who is the NASA team mentor to the six teams supported by PPPL. Each team is made up of about six teachers and one team leader.
Yesterday, we found out some fantastic news first thing in the morning — we were invited to the welcome home party for the crew from the final space shuttle. The ceremony took place at Ellington Field’s Hangar 990, in the open space right next to where the PPPL-affiliated teams had set up their zero-G experiments for pre-flight reviews.
The four STS-135 (space shuttle) astronauts had landed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida the day before, completing the Space Shuttle Program’s last mission. We joined about 2,000 others who had gathered on the hot (95 degrees) and humid day for the ceremony.
Our teams had wrapped up their experimental set-up in record time, left the hangar through its rotating gate, and turned around to wait in line to enter the party inside the hangar. Enthusiasm mingled with the heat as we shared in this momentous day, which was — in the words of one NASA employee — “bittersweet.”
The STS-135 crew consisted of Captain Chris Ferguson, pilot Doug Hurley, and mission specialists Sandra Magnus and Rex Walheim. Walheim told the crowd that he had seen a sign when they landed at Kennedy that summed up the last 30 years: “Don’t cry because it’s over, but smile because it happened.”
The shuttle program began in Houston three decades ago, and concluded at the place where it all started.
We had waited in the blistering sun, dripped in perspiration, and — once allowed to enter after a security sweep of the area — found shade under the roof of the hangar. It was worth every drop of sweat and cramping leg muscle to steal a glance of this valiant crew, whose sweat — along with courage, brilliance, and determination — fueled the shuttle mission. Standing near PPPL collaborator Nick Guilbert (a teacher on one of our zero-G teams) and me were two young NASA coop interns. The aerospace engineers had taken a break to witness the final welcome home — a farewell — to the last shuttle crew. The young female engineer said she could not remember a time when there wasn’t a space shuttle. Yet she and her male colleague glowed with optimism for the future of the space program, and for a future filled with scientific challenge and discovery. It is these very kinds of young people who our programs — the education programs of NASA and PPPL — hope to continue to inspire and who become inspirations themselves.