A reserve of funds is rocketing the chances of pupils across Scotland to visit NASA, writes Douglas Blane
So much about the trip was memorable," says Kevin Milmore, a fifth year pupil at St Ninian's High in East Renfrewshire, about attending space school at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
"The best part was the invitations to people's homes. You'd find the person sitting next to you had been in space and you'd talk to him for an hour.
"Astronauts must get bored with questions, but they answered every one of ours with enthusiasm. They seemed to enjoy talking to us. It was so rewarding."
One of the men who made a lot of time to meet the group of Scottish pupils on the 10-day educational trip in January was Mike Baker, who has four Space Shuttle flights to his credit, the latest in 1997 when he commanded the Atlantis on a mission to rendezvous with the Space Station Mir.
"It was great fun for us to meet the kids. They were hard-working, inquisitive and enjoyable to talk with. Nowadays I work with our international partners, so I brought along some cosmonauts for them to meet," he says.
This was the second time the Scottish Space School Foundation had organised trips for pupils from four education authorities. In January 2002, two dozen went to the Johnson Space Centre and it was just as exciting for them.
"On the third day in Houston we met astronaut John Young," says Thomas Hoare, of Holyrood Secondary, Glasgow. "He has flown six times from Earth, including two missions to the Moon. He is one of the most interesting people you could ever meet."
Now the opportunity to take part in NASA's highly regarded educational programmes is being rolled out across Scotland, organised by Careers Scotland and funded with pound;30,000 a year for three years by the Scottish Executive and as much again from Scottish Enterprise and sponsorship. This will allow many more pupils to get involved: up to 2,000 will take part in the online learning modules and workshops.
The selection process for next year's space schools - one in January and another in September - is just beginning. Information is being sent to all 32 education authorities, who should then invite schools to nominate pupils.
After that, explains Alex Blackwood, head of enterprise in education at Careers Scotland, the nominated pupils will take part in a set of NASA online modules and then attend a summer workshop.
"The final selection of 25 pupils to attend each space school is not made purely on academic grounds. Pupils should be studying science but we also look at their commitment and motivation and how well they work together as a team," he says.
Teachers accompany the pupils to Houston and are just as overwhelmed by the wonders of space.
"It was an amazing experience," says Kenny Ross, assistant headteacher at St Ninian's High. "I get goose bumps thinking about it.
"We watched a launch of the Space Shuttle on closed-circuit television and were taken to restricted places, like the neutral buoyancy lab, where astronauts do hours of training.
"We had a barbecue on the first day and astronauts were just dropping in and chatting."
The first few days of space school are fairly relaxed as the guests get to know their American hosts. Films and talks on Martians, meteorites and microgravity are interspersed with simulated space flight and sightseeing.
Then, on Monday morning, the pace quickens and for the rest of the week the pupils rise, as astronauts do, at 6am, which is a shock for some. "I'm not real fond of early wake-ups myself," comments Mike Baker, drily.
The focus of the week's activities is a set of teamworking exercises that include lifting a payload into orbit, constructing a Mars lander and building and launching a rocket within a budget.
"Five burst balloons later we finally managed to get it to work, and got three pieces of our rocket up to lower Earth orbit," says Deborah Kettle, of Bellahouston Academy in Glasgow.
Talks from experts on space science are held throughout the week, as are visits to places of interest such as Mission Control. The evenings are spent socialising with space men. It is a packed schedule and the week flies past, culminating in an awards ceremony on Friday, when certificates are presented to the pupils.
Another benefit of Careers Scotland's relationship with NASA is that the international Enterprise Olympics in June will be judged by NASA engineers and astronauts. "While they are in Scotland we will get them to go around schools and talk to pupils and teachers," says Mr Blackwood.
"Right now I'm real busy," says Mike Baker. "The next expedition to the space station is launching in a couple of weeks and I'm in charge of making sure all our NASA participation gets on the Soyuz rocket. Once that's over, I'm hoping to come to Scotland."