Above and beyond

3rd November 2006 at 00:00
Many children dream of being an astronaut. But 34 pupils with winning ideas found that the dream could be a reality. Helen Lowe joined them on a visit to Nasa

Scott Kelly describes his job as an astronaut as "the greatest possible fun" But landing a shuttle orbiter is, he says "the most difficult thing a pilot is ever required to do". And he should know - since 1996, he has served as a shuttle pilot, logging more than 191 hours in space. Scott had a personal interest in the most recent shuttle landing in July: his twin brother Mark was a co-pilot as the Discovery returned from a 13-day trip to the International Space Station.

For 34 prize-winning students from schools across the UK, the landing at the Kennedy Space Center was a very special event. Privileged to be in the viewing enclosure set aside for astronauts' family and guests, the teenagers waited tensely, well aware of the challenges involved.

The students had been given detailed descriptions by top Nasa personnel of the difficulties faced by the crew when the craft descends from its orbit to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere over the Indian Ocean. This is the moment of "de-orbit burn" - when, with no fuel, the shuttle has a 40-minute "glide" round the world to its landing strip - and the pilot has just one shot at getting it right. Two sonic booms signalled the shuttle's arrival, and brought everyone to their feet. With a flight path as steep as 20 degrees and a touchdown speed of more than 200mph, there was still a great deal that could go wrong, but the Discovery drew to a halt in an almost surreal silence, its braking parachute billowing behind, right in front of our enclosure. Ross Hookings, 17, from Neath Port Talbot college in Wales, sums up the feeling: "It was absolutely amazing - to think just an hour ago that was in space."

This experience is part of the trip awarded to the 10 best regional teams in the Edge Into Space competition. Chosen from more than 1,000 entries, the winning projects had produced inspired ideas for anything that could improve life in space, or work that could be done in space to improve life on Earth. The ISSET and Edge partnership organised the competition to introduce British pupils to the world of space exploration. ISSET - International Space School Educational Trust - aims to use the wow factor in space exploration to increase student motivation, while The Edge Foundation aims to show that vocational learning can be inspirational.

The 12-day "space camp" trip took the winners to centres in Florida and Texas to meet astronauts and rocket scientists, to take part in astronaut training programmes, and to watch the shuttle landing. The students were shown round the buildings and launchpads, with an in-depth history of the space programme delivered by Nasa staff. Our guides didn't mince their words about the dangers and the tragic side of space history, preparing students for the stop-off at launch pad 34, where concrete structures have been left as a memorial to the three astronauts who died in 1967, when a flash fire struck the Apollo 1 capsule during a training exercise. Standing on that launch pad is an emotional experience, a potent reminder, as 15-year-old Chris Sandford, from Wellsway school in Bristol, says, "of how space exploration is highly dangerous and yet important".

"Working with this group of people, dedicated to what they're doing and passionate about it" is, Scott Kelly told the students, the best part of his job. The students were given an insight into this teamwork, witnessing the complex operations involved in the mission-control room and watching teams of scientists preparing future space experiments.

Kristian Davies, 16, from Neath Port Talbot college, says: "The mock missions gave us a good insight into the 'real' stars of Nasa and how they work. The astronauts are the public figures, and the training made us realise that there is more to a mission than most people see."

The students tried moon-walking, being swung on a pulley for several metres across the hall with each step; a free-fall simulation in a rotating tri-axis trainer; and a co-ordination task conducted while swinging in a harness from the ceiling of the Kennedy training hall. Chris Saunders, 18, from West Calder high school in West Lothian, says: "We felt as if we were actually getting trained as astronauts."

Not all of the students are physicists, and not all had been fascinated by space science before the trip, but all of them would certainly take back vivid memories. Many, like Aamira Challenger-Mynett, 14, also from Enfield, were surprised that non-scientists worked at the space centres, and that maths played an important role: "The trip has given me more options for my future career: from doing mission control simulations, I have realised that I might want to work as a flight dynamics officer - the person who makes sure that everything happens at the right time."

James Sadler, 17, also from West Lothian, says: "Most of the science and engineering being talked about was entirely new to me. It was still very interesting and I enjoyed every minute." James is looking for a niche on the space programme as an oceanographer (an interest which he might investigate on the Nasa oceanography website: http:hurricanes.nasa.govoceans).

So how did students sum up this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? Are any of them now planning to become astronauts? Some, like Tom Robson, have other plans: "This trip didn't change my ambitions for the future, it just encouraged me more to aim for them and to achieve them." But others, such as Simon Clark, returned to the UK with a clear ambition in mind: "I wanted to be an astronaut before I went, but this trip most definitely made the dream seem more realistic and plausible. I've come back a much more confident person, both socially and in lessons."

But Chris Saunders perhaps best sums up the whole experience: "This trip has given me something invaluable: the courage to do things that others think are impossible. I've learnt, both literally and metaphorically, that the sky is not the limit. With hard work and determination, anything is possible."

ISSET offers school programmes from primary level and teacher development.

It also runs an annual competition for Cardiff schools, Step Into Space, offering pupils in Years 9 to 12 the chance to win a space camp trip to Johnson and Kennedy space centres. www.isset.orgEdge is planning to take 40 young people in the UK aged 13 to 17 on a trip to the Arctic in 2007. To enter the competition visit www.iceedge.co.uk


Physics Superstars (Neath Port Talbot college). Kristian Davies, 16, Charlotte Tudor and Ross Hookings, both 17 They grappled with the expense and the limits of human endurance of long space journeys. They came up with a system of space elevators linked by transportation in "nanotravel" shuttles.

Team NARA (Enfield county school). Andrea Adamou, Natalie Barber, Rebekah Willer and Aamira Challenger-Mynett, all 14 Used a plastic dental mould lined with bristles to solve teeth cleaning problems in zero-gravity. Enzymes would break down food particles and plaque.

Scottish Space Cowboys (West Calder high school). James Sadler, 17, and Christopher Saunders,18 Designed a mobile inflatable habitat to allow astronauts to leave the spacecraft without wearing a bulky spacesuit. The giant sphere, made from Vectran (a liquid-crystal polymer), would be attached to a robotic moveable arm.

Team Alex and Zoe (Esher CE school, Surrey). Zoe Booth and Alex Illsley, both 14 Designed electromagnetic boots to help astronauts move in zero gravity.

Team Mission Delta (Priestlands school, Hampshire). Brendan Toms, Ben Freeman and Tom Robson (pictured, left to right), all 14 Ideas for developing space tourism.

Team Space Tent (Wellsway school, Bristol). Christopher Sandford, Elle Buchanan, Devon Buchanan, Simon Clark, all 15 Developed living quarters for the moon.

Team Cool (Framwellgate school, Durham). Richard Flower, Kate Hannaby, Laura Cousins and Joanne Hopper, all 17 Designed the next generation spacesuit - fashionable and functional.

Team Gravity (Churchill community school). Joe Plumb, Tom Watson-Follett, Becky Voisey and Amber Hartley-Watts, all 15 Designed an electrosuit to enable astronauts to exercise in space. This could also be used by people who have muscle-wasting diseases.

Team Rits (Bishop Rawstorne CE School). John Findley, Matthew Cobain, 14, and Thomas Heaven and Sam Bentham, 13 Came up with the idea of using Calisto, one of Jupiter's moons, as a refueling point for long-distance space travel.

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