Science and Technology News

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Universe is Closer Than You Think!

Bringing Space Exploration Down to Earth for Local Students

Recently 200 Palo Alto middle school students discovered their dreams of space exploration were not so far from reality. With the aid of NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., the Traveling Space Museum transformed an ordinary Thursday at Ronald McNair Academy in East Palo Alto, Calif., into a morning of rocket-fueled imagination.

The museum's truckload of interactive machines and informative displays was accompanied by several top administrators from nearby Ames Research Center who, along with volunteer NASA scientists, helped bring the excitement of space exploration a little closer to the ground.

Highlights included experiencing what it would feel like inside a vacuum, flying in an F117 simulator and riding actual small-scale hovercraft; the space toilet was a particularly big hit with the young students.

“Space Day” also allowed students to learn about their school’s deeper connection with the space program. To help explain the relationship was guest of honor Cheryl McNair, widow of astronaut Ronald McNair. Ronald McNair was one of the seven crewmembers who lost their lives during the Challenger disaster and the second African-American in space.

Ronald McNair was particularly aware of the educational challenges facing the underserved population. After his death, McNair Academy, which serves 210 students in an underrepresented community, was rededicated in his memory.

The Traveling Space Museum visit provided an opportunity for Cheryl McNair, who had never before visited her husband’s East Palo Alto namesake, to introduce herself and tell the students a little about Ronald McNair’s life and his hopes for their future.
She wanted the students “to know that Ron did care, and to know that behind this name was definitely an inspiration, a motivation to achieve and a hope and a dream come true, not only for his life but for their lives.”

Ronald McNair’s background was similar to the students' and Cheryl McNair explained that despite personal obstacles, through focused hard work, he was able to graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with a doctorate in physics. Two years later, he was chosen from among thousands of applicants for the astronaut program.

“Excellence, perseverance, determination and care” were Ronald McNair’s ingredients for success and Cheryl McNair asked the audience to repeat each of them before ending her speech by summoning a rousing cry of “I can!” from the students.

Before introducing Cheryl McNair, Ames Deputy Director Lewis Braxton III stressed the importance of STEM education, which focuses on science, technology, engineering and math. He explained that these skills are some of the most badly needed in the country.

Braxton emphasized that minority groups are particularly under-represented in STEM fields and stressed the significance of math in particular, describing it as “the common language that makes everything happen.” He challenged the students to “ask tough questions” during the course of the day and encouraged them to follow the example set by Ronald McNair to pursue their goals through “excellence, perseverance, determination and care.”

NASA Ames has been collaborating with the Traveling Space Museum since 2010 in an effort to continue to help young people feel a little more at home with space. 

 James Schalkwyk
Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.

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