Jeff Lester at The Coalfield Progress
Norton, VA — When Megan Seals looks into the night sky, she sees out-of-this-world opportunities.
The Big Stone Gap native and Fairfax County fifth-grade teacher believes the time has come to put more educators on space flights. They can inspire a new generation of kids to expand their horizons not just beyond their communities, but beyond the bounds of Earth itself.
Seals put her commitment into action last month when she learned first-hand how it is to float weightless like an astronaut.
“It was the most amazing experience I’ve ever had,” she said in an interview yesterday.
Seals is working with the Southwestern Virginia Technology Council to get more such zero-gravity experiences for teachers. Ultimately, she hopes to use her position with two key advocacy groups to get other teachers on the passenger list for commercial sub-orbital space flights within the next five years.
In mid-March, Seals was able to participate in a weightlessness flight offered by Zero Gravity Corp., departing from Dulles International Airport.
A modified version of a Boeing 727 airliner took 35 passengers up for the roughly two-hour flight. In groups of 10 or 12, they were placed in big padded rooms within the plane where they could float, fly, do flips, play no-gravity games and conduct brief experiments.
The plane flew a series of 15 parabolic arcs — climbing, then entering a rapid powered dive.
For about 30 seconds at a time, each dive rendered the passengers completely weightless or gave them the equivalent of moon gravity, one-sixth that of Earth, or Mars gravity, one-third that of Earth, Seals explained.
At complete weightlessness, “you have no control over your body,” she said. “It’s disorienting. Your instinct is to swim, but you can’t.”
You can feel your body levitate, but without gravity, the only way to direct your movement is to push off a solid object or grab onto one. Set an object spinning, and it will just keep spinning in one place until it hits something, she said.
With so little control, the participants were literally bouncing off each other. “It was fun, like being a kid.”
Meanwhile, each rapid climb before the weightlessness dive would push the participants to the floor with the force of up to twice their normal body weight. “It gave me a new appreciation for the force of gravity,” Seals said.
Seals is already translating the experience into knowledge for her fifth-graders, such as a math lesson on calculating one’s lunar or Martian weight and a writing lesson on how to design a zero-G sport. For young kids raised on video games, it’s crucial to capture their interest by linking esoteric academic concepts to real-life experiences such as flying weightless in space, Seals noted.
Seals, a member of the Space Frontier Foundation board of directors and of the foundation’s Teachers in Space initiative, is working with the Southwest technology council to get at least one more teacher on a zero-G flight — this time an educator from one of the 16 western-most Virginia school districts.
The council teamed with Wise County supervisors to raise the nearly $5,200 needed to book a flight, council representative Donald Purdie explained. The Teachers in Space program will choose the winning teacher sometime this year, with Seals chairing the selection committee.
Meanwhile, Purdie, as chairman of the Virginia Technology Alliance, has challenged the state’s nine other technology councils to match the local effort.
TEACHERS IN SPACE
The next giant leap for putting educators in space will come in July, when the Teachers in Space program announces its first six Pathfinder astronaut candidates.
Hundreds of applicants have been evaluated. The first six will get rides on private commercial sub-orbital vehicles.
Companies developing these spacecraft have already donated five tickets for the effort, Seals said. Such flights — climbing roughly 60 miles, high enough to see the curve of the earth for a few minutes — are projected to begin within five years and possibly as soon as 2010, she noted.
Thanks to recent state legislation advocated by Seals’ former mentor Jack Kennedy — the Wise County and Norton circuit court clerk and a Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority board member — those flights could take off from NASA’s aerospace facility on Wallops Island in eastern Virginia.
The experiments teachers will conduct and bring back to the classroom present a exciting opportunity to show kids they can tackle math and the sciences — disciplines in which American students lag far behind their global peers, Seals said.
Since she already has a zero-G flight and plenty of other preparatory experience under her belt, will Seals be a contender for that first list of six space-bound teachers?
No, because as a member of the Teachers in Space board, it wouldn’t be fair for her to compete, so she bowed out, Seals explained.
But Seals has no intention of staying earthbound forever. With all of her preparation and activism, she said, it’s only a matter of time before she boards a flight beyond the blue and reaches for the heavens.