By Mary Boone
Nikki Ebbett once dreamed of being an astronaut. A heart murmur kept her on the ground, but the Gault Middle School science and math teacher is helping Tacoma kids soar through a realistic NASA flight simulation program.
Begun in 2000 and modeled after a Georgia elementary school program, Ebbett’s simulation project involves about 50 “crew members” each year. The students meet after school for seven months to train for the mission. They learn about the history of the space program, master fundamental flight procedures, memorize flight lingo and launch sequences, work through computer drills and practice working inside the school’s space shuttle simulator—a 737 nose cone donated by Boeing.
“It’s been a great experience because the kids are learning about science and math in a fun, interesting way, but they’re also learning to set goals, accept differences and work as a team,” says Ebbett.
Students run the simulated mission, taking on roles ranging from astronauts and mission controllers to medics and security guards. The months of training culminate with a 27-hour mission during which six astronauts and a teacher chaperone are locked away inside the simulator and three shifts of controllers assist with launch and landing, satellite deployment and the monitoring of on-board experiments. A postflight assembly and closed circuit television coverage allow students not in the program to learn from it.
“Everything is as realistic as we can make it,” says Ebbett, noting that student astronauts eat an off-site pre-flight meal, are chauffeured to the school, and change from their orange flight suits to blue working suits once they get inside the shuttle. NASA-inspired patches commemorate the flights.
“Getting kids excited about the project the first year was hard because no one had any idea what it was going to look like or whether it would really happen,” says Ebbett. “Initially we had some hard-core space geeks who were interested, but it took awhile before the excitement built and we were able to fill all the spots on our crew.”