“It’s a very demanding program,” said Laster. “And it all happens after school. A lot of these kids have been staying until 5 o’clock since September. They take it very seriously.”
Students work in a mock-up of mission control that has eight consoles and patches of past programs adorning the walls. That room links to a simulator housed in a trailer that has been outfitted with a flight deck and control panel that closely resembles the real shuttle. Students train for a mission that requires teamwork to devise solutions for problems that pop up.
“Our flight plan is pretty standard – launching the space shuttle, deorbiting and bringing it back,” said Laster. “The experiments they perform change. We also do a 60- to 90-minute EVA (extravehicular activity) – a space walk – that requires the students in the simulator to suit up in high-altitude helmets and go through a decompression session in an airlock. This year’s EVA had students building a communications link between a computer and radio.”
Years of offering the program has paid off with a higher number of students drawn to math and science, said Laster. “Students have come back to me as adults and said this made them realize that their potential was so much greater than what they believed. It gave them impetus to go on to bigger things. We had three kids who graduated from Ivy League colleges, and I can’t tell you how many have gone to Georgia Tech, who have said the program gave them a vehicle to challenge themselves.”
Fifth-grader Samantha Luft led the all-girl astronaut crew for this year’s team and worked in the orbiter for 27 hours.
“It’s good we’re all girls because there’s not much privacy in there,” she said with a laugh. “But I wanted to do it because I thought it was cool and would benefit me a lot. Science is definitely my favorite subject, and I want to go into the science field.”
The team experience also gives students a chance to learn about space and science without having to leave Smyrna.
“We used to go to Huntsville every year, but we had to quit doing that a while ago,” said Laster. “It’s almost impossible to get money for that sort of field trip.”