Tiny astronauts embark on epic learning journey

Thursday, Jack Hulland School seemed normal. Multiple pairs of brightly coloured boots lined the foyer walls, and the halls were relatively quiet at…

Thursday, Jack Hulland School seemed normal.

Multiple pairs of brightly coloured boots lined the foyer walls, and the halls were relatively quiet at 9:15 a.m.

Children were already delving into the day’s lessons.

But, despite all appearances to the contrary, this was no ordinary day.

A cosmic energy coursed through the school’s denizens.

Following this otherworldly vibe led straight to . . . the library.

It seemed the school had gone on a David Bowie-inspired decorating spree: “Ground control to Major Tom, countdown commencing, engines on.”

The library had been converted into a NASA-style operation’s centre.

The day began with an official news conference, held from behind a podium placed in a briefing room filled with small, yellow chairs.

Busily attending to the media and conference guests were tiny astronauts clad in white space suits.

Where had these diminutive space travellers come from?

Well, David Michayluk’s Grade 6 class, of course.

Thursday, after months of preparation, the students launched Excelsior, a spacecraft.

The intergalactic team had been training for blastoff since mid-October.

Seven students had been chosen to pilot the class’ shuttle through the stratosphere.

Twenty more were grounded, directed to fire the engines and monitor the spacecraft’s progress through the northern sky.

Starting at 9:15 a.m., the minutes started ticking down, — 45, 44, 43 and counting— until Excelsior’s liftoff.

Mission control was a flurry of activity.

There were tours of the shuttle, interviews with the assembled media and goodbyes made to family.

Kiana Palamar, a flight correspondent and public affairs specialist, led a tour of Excelsior moments before astronauts sealed the hatch.

“I was most excited when I found out what the job was about,” she said in a professional tone.

At first she was disappointed not to be an astronaut, Palamar explained. However, being part of ground control had taught her a lesson.

“The thing I learned the most was probably don’t judge something before you get it, because you never know what it’s going to be like.”

Excelsior was a room made aerodynamic by an arc of white plastic tarps and duct tape.

It was furnished with workout equipment, located to the right of the hatch, where the astronauts would exercise for two hours over the course of the mission.

A long, squat table crossed the midsection of the shuttle. This was the science-area where the seven astronauts conducted a series of 10 surprise experiments.

Three computers and a webcam, for the pilot and other voyageurs to communicate with mission control, lined the far wall.

Opposite the exercise bike was perhaps the most important tool of the voyage — a stash of foods including dried noodle bowls, granola bars, apple juice and fruit punch.

Tessa Rittel, the shuttle crew’s mission specialist, was gearing up to spend 12 hours in space, or something like it.

“I’m really excited about the whole thing,” she said from inside Excelsior.

Once the hatch was sealed, there would be no way off the shuttle for 12 hours, she explained.

There were no pit stops allowed. So the voyage, being far longer than a drive to the lake, had to account for nature’s call.

In an adjoining room, closed off by a sheet of white tarp, was a custom-made washroom — a green garbage can with a cardboard cover. Sitting beside it, on the floor, was a roll of toilet paper, an aerosol can of air freshener and a bottle of gel hand-sanitizer.

The media tour ended abruptly.

Onlookers were herded out, and astronauts took command of their ship.

Back in mission control, the team took their seats, each at a separate computer.

After a brief walky-talky check, all systems were declared a go.

The lights dimmed, and walky-talkies bleeped into action with communiqués from shuttle to control and back again.

A number of the territory’s most prominent figures were on hand to bid the travellers bon voyage, including incumbent MP Larry Bagnell, Premier Dennis Fentie and former premier Pat Duncan.

“I can honestly say, during my time in school, experiential learning was not part of the program,” said Fentie.

“Maybe one of these students will be on a space journey themselves one day.”

Michayluk, the mission head, said Excelsior has opened students’ eyes to the vastness of space.

“It really peaked their interest,” he said, noting that students would come in with newspaper clippings and information about outer space.

It also helps the learning process, he said.

“It’s a change for them from classroom routines,” he said, directing students how to update shuttle information online.

When asked if it helped students retain what they are taught, he said “absolutely.”

“They’ve been working towards a goal, working towards something. Everything has been focused on this day, on the launch date.”

A webcam image of the seven astronauts in their shuttle was projected onto a large blank wall in mission control.

Beside it was the real-life image of astronauts launching into space.

Bleep. Bleep.

“The hatch has been sealed,” the astronauts radioed to mission control.

Bleep. Bleep.

“Roger.”

Despite the lack of a ground-shaking explosion and subsequent pillar of flame carrying the shuttle skyward, it seemed everyone involved suspended their disbelief.

A nervous excitement filled the room and silence fell as the team approached final countdown.

Three . . . two . . . one . . . blast off!

As Excelsior rocketed into space, pilot Peter Hanson, bounced in front of the web-cam.

Jounced and jumbled as the forces of gravity and motion play on his body, Hanson sported a smile of astronomical proportion.

Peter is a changed boy, said his mother, Catherine Verberg.

“He’s taking this very seriously,” she said about his pilot responsibilities. “He comes home full of facts and stories.”

“He’s more responsible,” she added.

Excelsior has inspired him to go to bed willingly at night and to get up on time in the morning, she explained with a smile.

The magic of the launch held everyone’s attention for a few moments — until a tinny voice cut through communication.

“Just a reminder to students that it’s a boot room day today.”

The recess announcement finished with one final remark.

“And congratulations to the space shuttle. They have launched and are in the air.”

Mission accomplished.

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