March 9, 2009

Science Teachers To Conduct Space Walks

Science teachers Joseph Acaba and Richard Arnold II have spent the past five years training to perform a job no educator has done before: conducting multiple spacewalks.

The duo will be part of the upcoming space shuttle Discovery mission, scheduled for liftoff next Wednesday.  The two-week mission to the International Space Station will mark the first time two one-time teachers have launched into space together.  Both will attempt multiple spacewalks, the most dangerous job in orbit, during the mission.  

NASA initially delayed the mission for one month due to concerns about hydrogen gas valves in the engine compartment.  The agency later found the spacecraft safe to fly after conducting additional tests.

The teachers and their five crewmates arrived at the launch site Sunday afternoon, four hours ahead of the official start of the mission countdown.  The team thanked everyone who helped resolve the valve issue.

Acaba, 41, is from Anaheim, California.  The former geologist and Peace Corps volunteer also served in the Marine Corps Reserves.  He will be the first person of Puerto Rican heritage to go into space, and will carry that territory's flag with him on the mission.

Arnold, 45, is a trained marine and environmental scientist originally from Bowie, Maryland. 

Arnold, Acaba and the rest of Discovery's crew will deliver and install a final set of solar wings for the space station.

Next week's mission comes a year and a half after the last teacher-astronaut, Barbara Morgan, went into space.  Morgan served as a backup during the mid-1980s for schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe, who was killed aboard the space shuttle Challenger after the craft exploded after shortly takeoff on January 28, 1986. 

At that time, Acaba was a freshman at the University of California at Santa Barbara, while Arnold was a recent college graduate living in Washington. 

"It definitely had an impact when you look at the sacrifices that she (McAuliffe) made and the importance that NASA put on it," Acaba told the AP.

However, NASA didn't pair the two teachers together simply because they shared the same profession.  Rather, each had skills that were believed essential for this flight, such as having worked in the space station branch at Johnson Space Center in Houston and their experience with technology and hardware.

In addition to installing the new solar wings, the astronauts will deliver a spare urine processor for the ISS's cumbersome water recycling system, conduct maintenance work, and drop off Japanese Space Agency astronaut Koichi Wakata, who will remain at the space station for at least three months.

The mission will be so busy that NASA is limiting education-type events. Teenage-newscast network Channel One News will interview Acaba and Arnold during the flight, asking questions generated by students.

While McAuliffe and Morgan received minimal astronaut training during the mid-1980s, Arnold and Acaba were part of NASA's first educator-astronaut group selected in 2004, the year after the shuttle Columbia disaster that killed seven astronauts.  

Additional teachers with science and math backgrounds are expected in the next class this spring, and will receive the same training as everyone else.  NASA began the practice in 1998, when Morgan was invited to become a full-fledged astronaut.  She finally launched into space in 2007, but has since returned to education.

The teaching and astronaut professions are more alike than one might believe, according to Acaba.

"Teachers have to think on their feet. They have to adjust all the time, and I think that's part of what we [astronauts] do" Acaba told the AP.

"We train for specific things, but you never really know what's going to happen."

Arnold, who has taught throughout the world in places from Indonesia to Morocco, still sees himself more as a teacher than an astronaut.

"I guess if you look at it mathematically, I spent 15 years teaching and I'm coming up on five years as an astronaut," he said.

"I haven't morphed into an engineer yet, and I'm probably not going to."

Jane Ashman, principal at central Florida's Dunnellon Middle School, where Acaba taught math and science for four years, said Acaba's participation in the Discovery mission sends a powerful message to students.

"You can achieve your dream, whatever it is," she told the AP.

"You can be anything you want."

Discovery's other astronauts include Commander Lee Archambault, Dominic Antonelli, Steven Swanson and John Phillips.


On the Net: