Thursday, August 2, 2007

All Roads Lead to Home: Reflections on Space Camp

I spent the last week of July in Huntsville, Alabama, at The US Space and Rocket Center’s International Space Camp for Educators. While there, I stretched beyond the limits of anything I ever thought I would do. Among many other activities, I learned to read topographical maps of Mars; helped to create and launch a rocket; worked to build a heat shield out of copper mesh and tinfoil and test it with a blowtorch; performed an extra-vehicular activity to build a structure outside a space station on a mock mission; collaborated with others in mission control to launch and land a space shuttle as my team’s flight director; and experienced 1/6th gravity in a moon walk simulation. Along with 23 international participants, the 56 American teachers of the year went non-stop for seven days, from 7 am to 10 pm each day. After seven days, I returned wired, inspired, and exhausted.

When I recovered enough to actually start thinking about the implications of my week as a mock astronaut, one lesson seemed to shine above all others: the further away I went, the more signs I saw of home.

It started on the first day of camp, when Sang-Ki, the educator from South Korea, sang “Country Roads” to me on the bus at 7:30 am. This in itself did not seem unusual, since people all over the world have a tendency to break into their best John Denver renditions as soon as one mentions being from West Virginia. It's true: I’ve personally had it happen in Japan and in Thailand.

Another unsurprising West Virginia reference was frequent discussion of Chuck Yeager, a Lincoln County native and the first person to fly faster than the speed of sound. This, too, was expected, since Yeager was the director of the first Space School at Edwards Air Force Base, the training program responsible for producing the first astronauts.

During a break one afternoon, I went for a walk with the teachers of the year from New Hampshire, Tennessee, and Rhode Island, and we wandered onto a field used for testing student built rockets. Near the launching frames was a monument to Homer Hickam, the author of Rocket Boys, which is set in his hometown of Coalwood in MacDowell County. While we know Hickam primarily as a West Virginia Writer, he is better known in Huntsville as an Aerospace Engineer and astronaut trainer, dedicating much of his adult life to education and exploration. His books were on the shelves in the gift shop, and many of the other teachers had read them and shared them with kids.

Again, I had expected these references to home. Then things started to get more surprising. On Wednesday, we had a presentation from, a discussion with, and books signed by Ed Buckbee, the press person for the first manned space flights, and the founder of space camp. Mr. Buckbee is a native of Hampshire County and was educated in Morgantown (my hometown) at West Virginia University.

At Space Camp, teachers are divided into teams of about 15 people, and these teams work together in classes and on missions. Each team has two leaders, Space Camp employees who facilitate activities and serve as guides. One of our team leaders, Dan Oates, lives just over the mountain from me in Romney, WV. He has been a teacher-leader at Space Camp for seventeen years. He has also been fundamental in creating opportunities for thousands of children as the creator of SCI-VIS, a Space Camp experience for the visually impaired. Dan, along with Ed Buckbee, was inducted into Space Camp’s Hall of Fame as part of the 25th anniversary celebration this summer.

As one might imagine, I was beginning to feel a little stunned in the shadow of so many amazing West Virginians. And then things got weird.

On Friday, I had the chance to briefly visit with a little league team with members from Paw Paw, a town in the county where I live. They were passing through on their way to a tournament and had arranged for the afternoon at the Space and Rocket Center museum. We took a few photos, and I was again reminded of home.

And then, on Saturday morning in the airport, Dan stopped me to introduce me to a little boy from Romney. He was a fifth grader, and his favorite subject was science. As we posed for a picture in the terminal, he was clearly nervous at the thought of the adventure ahead of him. I was still coming down at the end of mine, and I told him that he was going to have a great time. When I explained that I had just had the most amazing week doing everything he was about to do, he looked at me—really looked at me—making eye contact for the first time in our conversation. I hope I left him a little less afraid, and I know that he has been changed by his week in Huntsville, as I am, though maybe not in the same way or for the same reasons.

Anyone who knows me knows that I look for greater meaning in simplistic images; English teachers do that. I look for signs and symbols, evidence of the universe at work in my daily life. In the air as I headed toward West Virginia, I tried very hard to piece together the meaning of all these encounters with home. I was supposed to be exploring the cosmos, right? But these connections kept me grounded—and not just grounded on Earth—grounded at home. With each connection I made, I felt the umbilical pull of my home state. And in these connections, I’d seen changed lives, and West Virginians who changed and will change them. I met pioneers of the past: Yeager and Hickam, who changed America’s technological and exploratory capabilities. I met visionaries who are making a difference in the present: Buckbee, who directly touched the lives of half a million people, as Space Camp celebrated its 500,00th participant this summer, and Oates, who saw a need and filled it to touch the lives of over 2000 visually impaired children. And I saw the future: children awed by the dream of possibility and the ways in which learning can be authentic and purposeful.

As part of our orientation, Dan Oates showed us a video news piece from Southern Living about Space Camp for visually impaired kids. I was very moved when one little girl spoke about her experience, saying that in her normal life she was a person who couldn’t see well, but in the SCI-VIS environment she was able to see better than others, and the vision she had enabled her to lead.

Good teachers are like that. We see things clearly when others can not, and we use the vision we have to lead others to see, too. All it takes is one person with one vision and the effort it takes to express it in a way that other people can see it, too. Some people see opportunities, or needs, or possibilities, or potential—whatever we see, it’s up to us to do something with our vision. To find the vantage point where we see best and project the image of our vision as far and wide as we can is the only thing—the greatest thing—we can do. As Christa McAuliffe so eloquently stated: “I touch the future, I teach.”

So here I am in the middle—looking at the past, present, and future—and trying to figure out where I fit. I spent my time at the Space and Rocket Center with 55 other American teachers who are the same as I am. We won the same award, went through the same program at Space Camp. We were in constant contact for the duration of our stay: we played together, worked together, learned together, ate together, and even slept in the same rooms in a dormitory. Yet I am different too, and I’m different in a way that is distinctly West Virginian. I believe in sense of place, and that place shapes who we are, and that as West Virginians we see things a little differently. Maybe my perspective is affected by the way the hills surround me, or by the way the leaves move in the wind, or by the fact that I, unlike so many other Americans, can actually see the stars when I stand in my backyard at night.

I don’t know what it is that sets any one of us apart, but I do know this: NASA is planning to send a human mission to Mars by 2025, and the person who may next set foot on the Moon, or on Mars, may be that boy I met in the airport. More fantastic yet, that Martian explorer may be a kid in my town, in my school, in my class. And if she—or he—is, I want to know that I’ve helped instill the drive to do whatever the heart says, the vision to believe it can be done, the determination to go and explore, and the sense to see and recognize the signs that lead us home.

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