Space elective ends at West; program still up in the air

       For close to 15 years, Ranganath Weiner has taken hundreds of students on simulated National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) shuttle flights from a West Middle School classroom, using a realistic NASA Full Fidelity Flight Shuttle Trainer (FFT) that he helped customize.

TOP: On a mission Inside the FFT May 20 are (left) commander Joshua Munson, and pilot Luke Riley.
BOTTOM LEFT: James Dean (standing), Weiner's friend and associate, and student ground controllers watch actual footage of a shuttle lift-off as part of the dramatization of their mission.
BOTTOM RIGHT: West Middle School teacher Ranganath Weiner stands beside the shuttle trainer (FFT) that he helped customize and has used for hundreds of space simulations with students.
Westside Pioneer photo


       On May 20, eighth-grade students in Weiner's elective space and technology class flew the FFT's last missions of the school year.
       What's unknown is when, where or even if his FFT will fly again. For now at least, it won't be at West, which will not offer the elective after this year, according to Principal Clay Gomez.
       A key reason is space - not the kind that ships fly in, but the square footage inside West itself. With about half the facility being turned into an elementary school in 2009-10, the sizeable classroom Weiner used this year is being partitioned to allow two lower-grade classes. “We have no room for it,” Gomez said of the FFT, adding the hope that the district can have it “reutilized somewhere.”
       But that is starting to appear unlikely. Gomez said in an e-mail that he contacted Larry Bartel, the principal of the Emerson-Edison Academy, an eastside school that has begun partnering with the Space Foundation. “He told me that due to the partnership that exists with the Space Foundation, they are expecting up to four brand- new simulators that apparently make [West's] somewhat antiquated,” Gomez said.
       (A side irony is that the Space Foundation's office is actually located on the Westside, about six blocks from West)
       Weiner himself will be going into his final year as a District 11 teacher in 2009-10, having announced his retirement this year. Usually a science teacher, he will instruct math.
       Another reason for terminating the space elective is school budget cuts, Gomez said. Its enrollment has declined in his two years as principal, “and a number of students who do sign up for the course end up requesting transfers out,” he said. “I cannot justify keeping the program.”
       The door is not completely shut, however. In response to an e-mail inquiry, District 11 Board of Education member Tom Strand said that although a D-11 staff proposal calls for moving West's space program to Emerson, that is not yet a “board directive.” As a result, Strand said, “I think it's a bit up in the air, and subject to the new superintendent and board actions.”
       One issue that may need to be sorted out is Weiner's personal investment in it all. In a recent interview, he talked about the time and money put in by himself and business associate James Dean, a former NASA employee who also oversees simulations in six other locations around the country. Over the years, at West, they've scrounged for grants and donations, found scrap computers and restored them, even customized the FFT - having it painted to look authentic, widening it so the flight deck would have room for the right number of monitors and rebuilding its interior to NASA scale so that students would “feel as crammed in as astronauts do,” Weiner said.
       In his elective class, the curriculum for which Weiner developed himself, students would study the history of flight, astronomy, aerodynamics, and satellite technology. On a mission, participants would dress in flight suits donated by the Strategic Air Command, with students assigned to the FFT's flight deck as commander and pilot, and three others as the control crew on the ground (actually 5 to 10 feet away). Using headsets and computer screens, they would simulate a flight in which a space shuttle would be launched with rocket boosters, after which its orbitor would circle the Earth and safely return for a landing. An optional, more in-depth shuttle mission would include deploying a satellite, Weiner noted.
       Much of the FFT simulation would involve running through the flight checklists from actual NASA flight manuals. The control panels and computer tower were original technology from the Apollo 13 era donated by the Johnson Space Center.
       Supervising the simulation May 20, Dean looked for ways to inject a sense of actual experience. Talking to the commander and pilot after they'd gained “orbit,” he commented, “You've got nothing to do right now except hope nothing goes wrong.” At another point, he said to the controllers, “You've got a tank of gas left. You better hope you make it because there ain't no gas stations on the way.”
       There's a colorful story behind the way the FFT wound up at West. An e-mail from Weiner recounts it as follows: “I got the outer shell from the District 20 warehouse in 1995. It was to be donated to the corporate closet [a former non-profit way station for usable items that could then be donated to educational entities or individuals], but the director of the corporate closet at the time (Bob Freehill) was married to the D-11 Science supervisor (Sherry Freehill). She contacted me and asked if I wanted a 'spaceship.' So I contacted the D-20 warehouse manager and we finally agreed that (off the work clock) it could get delivered to West in exchange for a 12-pack of beer. Done deal.”
       Weiner has gained nationwide recognition with his elective course, including being named a NASA Fellow. He has also led students in the American Rocketry Challenge and in attendance at space camps. In 2005, he got to attend a space camp himself and in 2007 joined a special flight for teachers in which he conducted experiments while weightless.
       Weiner expressed confidence that his program is not gone for good. Even if it does not come back at West, “it will come back somewhere,” he said.

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