June 22, 1998
Canyon Creek students take a flight in space
by Andrew Walgamott
BOTHELL--With their spacecraft running out of fuel and a massive solar flare hampering communications, local sixth graders were called on to make the kinds of split-second decisions usually reserved for NASA scientists. For the 23 students of Grace Dublin's Canyon Creek Elementary class recently assembled at mission control in a darkened Northshore School District building, it came down to a choice of moving the Lunar Prospector they were piloting by "pulsed" or "standard" power.
Pulsed would save fuel and extend the Prospector's lunar mapping mission; standard would use up fuel quickly. After hurried debate among the young engineers and scientists, the decision fell on Mission Directors Jenna Grapensteter, 12, and Phillip Norwalk, 11, who went with pulse power and saved the mission. Applause and high fives broke out among the students. "You did it!" Dublin proclaimed.
Though only a simulation, it was also more than just another computer video game for the sixth-graders. Called the Moonlink Internet Mission, it was created by a Wisconsin company with a $450 grant from the Washington NASA Space Grant Consortium (WaSGC). Canyon Creek was one of just three schools in the Washington state chosen to participate.
For the task, the students were assigned specific duties, spent weeks preparing for the mission and published a media information packet. During the actual mission, each was linked via Internet to different computer screens corresponding to their jobs.
With a momentary breather during the two-hour simulated spaceflight that included the chance to acquire live data from the real lunar Prospector, Dublin explained what students would gain from the experience. "They will come away with an understanding of future space missions and what it means in terms of science and dollars and the United States' view of what's going on," Dublin said.
Even after her class moves on to Skyview Junior High, they will continue to analyze Prospector data for the entire length of its mission, studying ice at the lunar South Pole, active gas release events, composition of the moon's surface, according to Heidi Belden of WaSGC. For Dublin, who has been praised by district officials for her teaching style, it's an extension of her teaching philosophy. "If you give kids real work to do," said Dublin, "they will shock you with their skills. But it has to be real work."
Just then, the spacecraft ran out of fuel and crashed into the moon, ending the mission. The real Prospector will eventually do the same. "Maybe one day, one of you will travel to the moon and find it," Dublin challenged her students.
For the kids, this was as close to the real thing as most will probably get. Grapensteter, one of the mission directors, wasn't so sure she wanted to go into space. While she said she'd "learned a lot about spacecraft and all the instruments," she said she'd rather control operations from the ground.
Stephanie Connolly, a 12-year-old in charge of launching the rocket carrying Prospector, said she got a little nervous about clicking on the wrong icon during the launch sequence. If she had, "it would've been really bad."
Jonathan Maxwell, 12, served as Principal Investigator. He had the responsibility of leading and directing a scientific team that looked for evidence of volcanic events, magnetic fields, and what the moon's surface is comprised of. "I felt it was a pretty good experiment because we found out what the Lunar Prospector is supposed to look for," said Maxwell.
"We learned to work together as a team," said Alisson Simmons, one of two public affairs officers.
Launched last January, the real Prospector has already found ice water beneath the surface of the moon which could be used for drinking and making oxygen if a permanent lunar base is built. The four-foot long, 650 pound craft also marks NASA's return to the moon. "The lunar mission will answer questions the Apollo missions didn't," said Belden. Apollo 17 last visited the moon in December, 1972.
"I never cease to be amazed at the creative ways Grace Dublin helps her students to apply their lessons to real life experiences," said District Communications Director Pamela Steele.