Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Imagination blasts off — Special guests spark interest in science

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Kenai Middle School students had some auspicious guests in class Friday, all the way from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, including their own teacher.

“I see you, Mr. Miller!” a few voices piped up as the videoconference link was established, letting the students see their science teacher, Allan Miller, and Miller see the 50 students in his classroom.

Miller was in Texas last week undergoing interviews and testing for NASA’s astronaut program. He’s one of 120 from a field of 4,000 applicants still under consideration in the nearly yearlong application cycle. NASA is in the process of winnowing that batch down to 40 or 50 by bringing them to Houston in groups of 20 for interviews. By spring, 10 to 15 will be picked to be the next astronauts.

Miller rounded up some of his fellow applicants and others he met at the Johnson Space Center to talk to his students back in Alaska. They each told a little about their backgrounds, if they were applicants, or their jobs for NASA if they worked there. Then the students got to ask questions. True to middle school form, the students had a few curveballs for their guests.

“Would people say you’re cool?” was a question for an astronaut in training, who will fly a mission to the International Space Station in February.

The answer came with a laugh: “I have a 13-year-old back home who would probably say, ‘No way.’”

Students also wanted to know how long training takes before going to space (2.5 to three years), how big the International Space Station is (each of the seven or eight modules is the size of a school bus) and how astronauts train to do spacewalks (practice in a swimming pool).

A professor from Stanford University talked about his research trips around the world and the different opportunities students have for research and study with NASA, including a recent test of worms and bacteria from toilets sent into space.

He’s taught at the college and elementary school level, and said younger students are his favorite to talk to, “Because you guys actually pay attention.”

“Do you mean that, or are you just saying that to make us feel better?” a student wanted to know.

Two Navy jet pilots were a big hit with the students and got several questions about the kinds of jets they fly, how they got to be pilots and if they like flying jets.

“Absolutely. It definitely beats working for a living,” one of them said.

Another candidate talked about his job building satellites and his history playing football at Purdue University, a medical doctor told students he wished he had a teacher like Mr. Miller when he was their age, and a scientist with a doctorate degree told them how much he enjoyed going to school:

“How would you feel if, by the time you graduated from high school, you were only halfway done with school?”

Miller did a slide show of photos from Mission Control and other areas of the space center, and some shots of the tests he underwent, including one of him in shorts undergoing body measurements.

“Sorry about that. You really didn’t want to see that image, did you?” he said.
The final speaker was a mechanical engineer specializing in robotics that Miller had met when he applied for the astronaut program five years ago.

He showed students how far robotic hands have come over the years and showed some robots developed for space missions. The robots included “Robonaut,” a humanoid figure; a flying camera reminiscent of a training device Luke Skywalker fought in the original “Star Wars” movie; and “Spidernaut,” with eight legs to distribute its weight so it could walk on delicate surfaces.

His current project is designing wheels for rovers being developed for missions on the moon and Mars.

“What is the first robot you ever built?” a student asked.

“If you count Legos, then Legos,” he answered. After that, it was a version of Robonaut.

After a half hour, it was time for students to participate in a school fire drill, and Miller to get back to attempting to become an astronaut. But that doesn’t mean he stopped being a teacher.

He signed off with a yes or no question that would determine whether he assigned homework over Christmas break:

“Who wants to be a scientist or engineer when they get older?”

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