Wearing orange full pressure “pumpkin suits,” the astronauts turned and waved one last time before boarding the space shuttle. Cameras snapped; parents waved, and with that they were locked in their home for the next 27 hours. Meanwhile, mission control began to work through the calculations and systematic steps to send a shuttle into space. The clock in the room ticked down to launch time. A television monitor featured a split-screen of the astronauts, now wearing helmets, as they prepared to embark on an out-of-this world lesson.
The student astronauts and their teammates in mission control were part of the 19th mission to space for the Russell Elementary School Space Program, which first launched in 1998.
The unique space program sends student astronauts on a simulated space mission inside a replica NASA shuttle. The space mission includes a launch, landing, payload deployment, spacewalk, onboard experiments and around-the-clock monitoring of onboard systems from the school’s mock mission control center.
Students in the space program start in August to prepare for launch day.
“They learn about orbital dynamics,” said Chris Laster, Space Team teacher coordinator and founder. “They learn how to work together as a team. They learn how to track telemetry, which is data that is sent down by radio from our space shuttle simulator. They learn how to monitor that for trends to detect problems and malfunctions and how to take measures to solve those problems.”
That’s not all the students learn. Grueling, that’s how Laster described the material the students learn over the course of the eight months leading up to the space launch.
“All the kids learn how to read acronyms from NASA. They have to learn how to read flight plans and time stamps,” explained Tracey Steiner, a Russell science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) lab teacher.
The students tackle the grueling material after school hours. Some of the students spend four days a week for several hours each day preparing for their space mission. The teaching staff help the students develop the math and science skills to understand the different systems aboard the space shuttle and the complexities of the spaceflight operations.
“We learned a lot about technology like radios and computers,” said fifth grader Samantha, one of the student astronauts. “Before I joined the program, I used to call it a space shuttle or a rocket. Now, I know the full term for everything.”
Some of what Samantha learned shocked her, for example, reading about the lack of privacy and bathrooms in space.
Samantha was motivated to join the space team by the stories her brother shared about the program when he came home every day. He was a member of the space team a few years prior.
Samantha’s fifth grade classmate Joy also made the space team a family tradition. Joy’s two sisters are both veterans of the Russell Space Program. Her sister, Princess, was there for Joy’s launch day as commander of the STS-19 team.
“The fact that she was able to buckle down and do all that work and reach the point where she is actually commanding the [space team] is wild,” Princess said.
The older sister has regaled stories of her time in the space program with her new college friends, who she said are shocked that her elementary school has such an elaborate space program.
“I loved the program, and I love how it is growing,” Princess added. “Mission control looks a lot more realistic.
Princess, who is studying biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Georgia, credits the space program for impacting her interest in science.
Joy and Princess’s dad credits the space program for helping his daughters excel in school.
“[The space program] teaches them how to be leaders,” their father Muhammed Dikko explained. “It teaches them how to stay on task when they are given assignments. It teaches them to take life, in general, seriously. We have seen the changes in [Joy’s] life. We have seen it in our other daughters. I’ve never had to tell them to go do their homework as a result of this [program] because they look forward to it.”
The proud father studied the material with his daughters, but has a confession about wanting to actually join the space team himself.
“It is a lot of hard work,” he said. “I couldn’t do it.”
Students in the space program have gone on to be chemical engineers, high-ranking service members and business owners. According to Laster, one space program veteran and graduate of the Georgia Institute of Technology will soon be writing orbital trajectories and trajectories for space probes. This student, too, credits the space program for propelling him on his career track.
Steiner, who has flown on 10 space flights with students, has a theory about why the space program encourages student success.
“The kids learn that there is a final goal,” Steiner explained. “They work hard and dedicate themselves to making something happen. We either fail together or succeed together, and when they learn they can succeed together, even if it may be the hardest thing they have ever done, they will be up for the challenges of life.”
The students who join the space team undergo a rigorous application process including physical fitness tests. The student astronauts earn the top fitness scores.
“To be selected for space team, you have to write an essay on why you want to join, how you think you can benefit and what skills that you can bring to the team,” astronaut Samantha added. “You basically have to prove that you are good enough to be on the team.”
Although the students must have high grades to join the team, Laster sometimes sees something in a student that others may not. He said that after some students join the program, they start to thrive and do things that they didn’t even know were possible.
Fifth grader Edith, who served as the STS-19 capsule communicator in mission control, said the space program helped her develop better study habits. Her favorite part was making friends and learning how to work more as a team.
Princess still keeps up with the friends she made on STS-10 mission.
Astronaut Kelsie, 5th grade, signed up for the STS-19 mission because she knew it would be a great teamwork experience and “It looked fun.”
The students cite varying reasons on why they want to enlist in the space program, but their teacher only has one.
“I’m here for the kids,” said Laster.
He launched the space program after taking Russell students on a trip to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala. A student asked why Russell Elementary couldn’t have a space program like the one in Huntsville. That question started the countdown to the school’s first space mission.
The program started off in the classroom and moved into the separate simulator set up in a trailer outside of the school, which is painted to look like a NASA space shuttle.
Steiner, who hung up her pumpkin suit for the last time after the STS-19 mission, described the space program as the heart and soul of Russell Elementary.
After STS-19 landed on May 9, the astronauts and mission control reunited and celebrated with a parade through the school.
There is a lot of emotion that takes place with the students, parents and teachers on landing day, according to the dad of three veteran space team members.
“There are a lot of tissue boxes being used. Even people who think they never cry, they always end up in tears,” Dikko said.
There was a lot to celebrate this year. About three minutes prior the shuttle landing, a power surge knocked out power in mission control and the simulator. The school staff does sometimes inject malfunctions so the students can use their skills to overcome challenges. This was not a drill.
“[The students] actually trained for that sort of thing,” Laster explained. “What we had not anticipated was that power was also knocked out in the simulator. So that really sent us into a scramble. It also messed up some of the tracking systems the students were using. So they basically had to go it blind at that point. They handled it very well.”
After all the excitement of the landing, the STS-19 team had a lot to discuss during the school press conference. The entire school gathered in the cafeteria to listen to the team answer questions about their mission.
“I hope the space program gets adopted in other schools nationwide because it teaches them a lot of leadership skills,” said Joy and Princess’s father Dikko. “It helps prepare them for the future and life and general. It teaches them how to relate to each other. It goes way above and beyond their everyday school work.”