Students prepare 'Mission Control' Jarrettsville school will talk to shuttle

February 24, 1993|By Sherrie Ruhl | Sherrie Ruhl,Staff Writer

At "Mission Control," they'll track the space shuttle Discovery's orbit, watch it hurtle through space on a giant television and talk to the astronauts during the nine-day April mission.

Pretty heady stuff for elementary school students.

At Jarrettsville Elementary, one of only 15 schools worldwide selected for "radio contact" with the shuttle, the students say they're ready to turn a spare classroom into their headquarters for tracking the spacecraft.

And when they get their moments to talk to the astronauts, many of the students say they know just what they'll ask.

Sara Kidd, 10, wants to hear all about living in a place without gravity.

"I want to know what it's like to float around and not be able to stand still," she said.

And how do those astronauts move around with that bulky spacesuit on?

Erin Mohr, 10, and Ryan Wattenschaidt, 10, got to try on a real spacesuit that the U.S. Education Department lent to the school for three weeks.

They found it nearly impossible to move because of the suit's weight.

"If you lifted a foot, the suit would tilt right over," said Ryan, a fifth-grader.

The school's detailed proposal for the radio contact beat out many others from throughout the world in fierce competition, said Frank H. Bauer, a senior systems engineer at the NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.

Twelve U.S. schools and one school each from Australia, England and South Africa have been selected for the radio contact by the Shuttle Amateur Radio Experiment (SAREX), he said.

The organization, composed of three amateur radio groups, began linking schools and shuttles in 1983 in an effort to heighten students' interest in science and technology.

As a member of SAREX, Mr. Bauer gives schools the technical advice they need to contact the shuttle. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration provides the funding, Mr. Bauer said.

Jarrettsville students will have up to 15 minutes during one day of the mission to talk to the seven astronauts, Mr. Bauer said.

"Most schools have time for three or four questions," he said.

A random drawing will determine which students get to talk to the astronauts.

"We didn't feel it was fair to hold a poster contest or an essay contest because some students don't have strengths in those areas," said Gemma Staub Hoskins, a fifth-grade teacher at Jarrettsville who wrote the proposal.

The school was chosen in part because it promised in its proposal to open the program to the community and to integrate classes on space technology across the school curriculum, Mr. Bauer said.

Students at nearby North Harford middle and high schools also will participate, using computer links to study weather patterns and track the shuttle's orbit.

The 585-student Jarrettsville Elementary, in a rural section of Harford County, is borrowing computers, a big-screen television, a ham radio and other necessary equipment from local businesses.

Mrs. Hoskins, the 1991 Maryland Teacher of the Year, said the school is setting aside a spare classroom to be transformed into "Mission Control" to hold the equipment.

"This is a wonderful opportunity for students. It could open their eyes to educational horizons they may never have thought about before," she said.

The date of the mission -- in which Discovery's crew will conduct experiments including the effects of near-zero gravity on rats -- won't be announced until shortly before the launch.

While few students will actually talk to the astronauts, all will participate in shuttle activities during the orbit.

Fifth-graders, for example, will build a shuttle out of a cardboard refrigerator box. Fourth-graders will make copies of the control panel used on the ground by NASA to track the shuttle.

Yesterday, students waited in line for a chance to put a fingerprint on a poster the Discovery crew will take into space.

Anthony Agostino, 10, carefully inked his pinkie and stuck it in the far-left corner of an outline of Maryland.

"This is for the astronauts," he explained proudly.

The poster, with the outline of Maryland and a big, gold star marking Jarrettsville, will be returned to the school after the flight, said Principal Gerry Mack.

Mission Commander Kenneth D. Cameron will return to the school in the fall with the poster.

It will then be hung in the school along with a photo of the crew, Mr. Mack said.

Space talk and a bit of space fashion, naturally, have taken off at the school lately. The borrowed astronaut's suit, for instance, proved a big hit.

Said Mrs. Hoskins, "Almost every student in the school got to try it on."

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