Space Education Ready for Take Off
By Cindy Long
Megan Seals, a fifth grade teacher from Fairfax, Virginia, recently took a giant leap for science. She also back flipped, somersaulted, and cart wheeled, all in midair. She was weightless on a parabolic flight – the kind NASA uses to train astronauts – that simulates zero, lunar, and Martian gravity.
Seals is on the Board of Directors for the Space Frontier Foundation and has been working for the past five years on the “Teachers in Space” project, which seeks to put a thousand astronaut teachers into space, then back into American classrooms, over the next 10 years.
The first seven were announced on July 20, the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing. The hope is that these educators will help launch a new generation of students excited about science and aerospace, and that the space exploration experiences of their teachers will send their imaginations and aspirations into orbit.
“This is the best way to spark kids’ interest in science and space,” Seals says. “After watching a video of my flight, one of my fifth grade girls said she wanted to work at NASA when she grows up.”
Seals didn’t apply to be one of the astronaut educators because she’s already a Teachers in Space project leader, but she’ll help design the training program, which will include a parabolic flight like the one she took.
Once their training is complete, the astronaut educators will fly aboard rocket-powered spacecraft developed by private aerospace companies. “After take-off, they’ll see black sky and planet Earth from the edge of space,” says Ed Wright, manager of the Teachers in Space program. “They’ll experience about five minutes of zero gravity, reenter the atmosphere at supersonic speeds, and earn their astronaut wings.”
During that five minutes, the educators will conduct experiments, most of which were developed with the help of their students and that won them a seat in the program.
Seals didn’t blast off into suborbit, but her flight was still a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It was conducted by ZeroGravity Corporation, a space tourism company best known for providing wealthy people the ability to fly to the International Space Station for $35 million, or even to the moon for a whopping $100 million. But for $5,000, the company also offers the opportunity to experience weightlessness as its specially modified Boeing 727 performs parabolic arcs at 34,000 feet.
Seals was able to participate through a state-sponsored program promoting science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education.
“The educational value of these flights is endless,” Seals says. She’s used examples from her flight in a constellation of lesson plans, even bringing awe to a mundane fractions lesson by explaining how she experienced lunar gravity (one sixth her weight) and Martian gravity (one third her weight). But she gets the most wide-eyed wonderment when she talks about zero gravity and flying totally weightless.
“They love to hear about what it’s like to float, although it’s almost impossible to explain,” she says. “It’s hard to find words to describe how your body is levitating. Everybody is levitating -- it’s just crazy! It was amazing to see that many people of all ages laughing hysterically. They looked like my fifth graders.”
She says kids from all over the school gather in her classroom to watch the one-minute clip of people floating. “It’s one thing when they’re watching a trained astronaut,” she says. “But when it’s one of their teachers, they think that’s pretty cool.”