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Go For Launch! Program to Put Student Experiments in Space

Advanced students at Hazelwood Middle School in Indiana worked with a former astronaut and the nonprofit Higher Orbits to design experiments, one of which was chosen to be launched to the International Space Station.

(TNS) — Students at a New Albany middle school have been given the opportunity to design a science experiment that will be sent into space.

This week, high-ability students at Hazelwood Middle School are participating in the multi-day Go For Launch! program. The experience was presented by Higher Orbits, a nonprofit focused on STEM education, and it included experts in the fields of STEM and space exploration, including Don Thomas, a former astronaut, and Michelle Lucas, founder and CEO of Higher Orbits.

Go For Launch! at Hazelwood is in partnership with Purdue University’s zero-gravity flight experiment program. Through Higher Orbits, students worked with Lucas and Thomas throughout the three-day program on a variety of activities, including designing an experiment that could be tested in space.

One student experiment from Hazelwood will be selected to be launched to the International Space Station. The program started Monday, and after students present their ideas Wednesday afternoon, a winner will be selected.

Lucas described the Go For Launch! program as an “out-of-this-world science fair.” So far, Higher Orbits has sent 13 student experiments into space, and Hazelwood’s will be the 14th when it is launched later this year or next year. As of Tuesday, students had proposed science experiments involving the study of things such as plants and insects in microgravity.

“This is something that most of these students have never had access to, and so we’re really excited to be here with students to show them we’re not trying to turn them all into rocket scientists, but space is such a great way to get them to think bigger and dream bigger,” Lucas said. “Sally Ridge said ‘you can’t be what you can’t see,’ so we want to show them some folks who have done different things, share our journeys, share our stories and encourage them that if they’re willing to work hard, there are a lot of possibilities and opportunities up there for them.”

Thomas became a mission specialist astronaut in 1990. He flew on the Columbia shuttle three times and on the Discovery once, and he retired from NASA in 2007.

“I’ve spent a total of 44 days in space, and during that time, I went around the Earth 692 times,” he said. “So I’ve seen a lot of our planet, and three of my four missions were science-related. We call them space lab — we had science module just like the International Space Station modules where we would do different science experiments looking at how plants grow, how fires burn in space, how liquids behave, and then I had another mission where we deployed a big communication satellite from the bay of the space shuttle, and we use that satellite to talk to the astronauts up on the International Space Station.”

Lucas worked for 11 years at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, where she served in mission control for the International Space Station and taught as a technical instructor for astronauts.

“Now, I get to bring that world and my knowledge, along with an astronaut and other space professionals, to students like these Hazelwood Middle School students where we talk to them about STEM, leadership, teamwork and communication and encourage them to dream big,” she said.

On Tuesday, Thomas shared recollections from his time as an astronaut. He recalled his experience meeting Neil Armstrong, who came to one of Thomas’ launches.

“He knew my wife would be really nervous on launch morning, and he just wanted to go see her and say, ‘hi, how are you doing,’” he said. “Neil Armstrong also tracked down my mom at the VIP area and said hi to her as well. He was a really good person, a good human being.”

Before the STS-70 Discovery Space Shuttle mission in 1995, a woodpecker damaged the foam insulation of the space shuttle, which delayed the flight. Because of this incident, Woody the Woodpecker became the crew’s unofficial mascot and led to many jokes within NASA.

“One week before launch, a woodpecker came in there and started drilling into the soft foam trying to make a nest, and after three or four inches, it would hit the aluminum underneath, couldn’t go any further and it would move over a few feet — then another hole and another hole and another hole,” Thomas said. “And this one woodpecker ended up making 105 holes in our big fuel tank, so we became known as the woodpecker crew. Sadly, this is how I’m famous in my life. I’m not famous for anything else, but I’m a member of the woodpecker crew.”

He includes some fun trivia questions in his presentation, including the fact that he was the first astronaut to take pizza into space, which took place on the Columbia in 1997.

“It was a-okay,” he said.

Thomas talked about what it felt like to be in space, including the lack of gravity.

“When I first got to space, I wanted my feet on the floor, because that’s how I’m used to orienting, and the minute I would let go, I felt like I was levitating upward,” Thomas said. “And I would pull myself back down and put my feet on the floor, and I would let go, and I just had this feeling of I kept moving up. I wasn’t floating upward, but I just had that sensation.”

Upon landing on Earth, he felt like he weighed “about a thousand pounds.”

“On my first flight, I was sitting in a seat ... so we just landed and I’m sitting in this seat, and I’m just trying to lift my foot off the floor, and I could only lift it an inch or two off the ground, and I thought, what’s going on here, is it stuck in gum or stuck on a cable, and I look at my foot, and there’s nothing holding it back, but two things had happened. One, my muscles got weaker when I was in space ... and the second thing and probably more important is my brain forgot how much force it takes to lift my foot against gravity.”

Thomas said after retiring from NASA, he wanted to work in the education, so he got involved with Higher Orbits.

“It’s really energizing for me,” he said. “You see the spark in their eye, the excitement that they have for space, and that’s the same spark and the same excitement I had as a young boy. So my goal or my dream would be, maybe I can inspire one of the young girls or boys in here today to become an astronaut, and maybe they go on and be the first human to land on Mars in the future. It’s that whole idea of inspiring the next generation.”

Hazelwood student Brooks Lozier said it was “really cool that a real-life astronaut gets to come to our school and teach us,” and he enjoyed hearing about Lucas’ experience training astronauts.

“I think it’s a really great experience, and it’s very, very cool,” he said. “Don’s really taught me not to give up, because he tried (multiple) times to be an astronaut, and every time he got turned down, he tried harder and harder, so I think it’s very important to try, try, try again.”

For his group’s experiment, they were coming up with ideas for bringing a hornworm, or a type of caterpillar that turns into a moth, into space, Lozier said.

Jennifer Scott, who teaches the fifth- and sixth-grade high-ability program at Hazelwood, said in her 26 years of teaching, “this is by far the coolest experience that I’ve ever been part of.” The students have been excited to come to class, and they have been using problem-solving and STEM skills and relating them to real-life activities.

“It’s really captivating for the kids,” she said.

Thomas answered a variety of questions from students, including whether or not astronauts’ hearts shrink in space. The answer was yes: heart muscles do shrink in the absence of gravity.

“I really enjoy the questions from the students here, and they don’t hold back,” he said. “They had a million questions for me — I think we could just answer questions all day long. But they’re really curious about space, and they’re really smart about it. You know, they’re asking, does the heart muscle shrink in space. These are pretty high-level questions...these students have had really good, pointed questions, and I enjoy hearing them, and I really enjoy sharing the experiences with them.”

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