Liftoff Summer Institute – Houston, Texas

This past Spring I was notified that I was selected and would be sponsored by the Virginia Space Grant Consortium to attend NASA’s Liftoff Summer Institute for educators. To say I was excited is obviously an understatement. Unfortunately, my new camera came in the mail two days after I left for Houston, but I managed to get some pretty neat pictures of the week on my phone. I’ve chunked my experiences by day below with a short synopsis of the highlights!

Sunday: After arriving {without my luggage} we made our way to the Kemah boardwalk to kick off the program. We did a fun STEAM activity, emphasizing the “A” for art by making aprons that listed the moon phases. Then we had time to walk around the boardwalk before dinner which was followed by a presentation from Jerry Woodfill. Jerry was truly one of the most entertaining presenters I have seen and his story of receiving the “Houston, we have a problem” call in mission control was a great start to our week.

Monday: Following an inspirational “Women at NASA” panel featuring four extremely intelligent women paving the way in their respective fields, we met Astronaut Fred Haise who was part of the Apollo 13 mission. One of the most interesting things I took away from his presentation was how calm he was during their mission, despite the extreme danger they were facing. It goes to show the type of personality they look for in the astronaut program — certainly someone who can stay calm under extreme pressure. Following lunch we did several cool activities around the solar eclipse that’s occurring August 21st. We then moved on to a tour of the Robotics lab in the Johnson Space Center. This was one of the coolest experiences — we got a walking tour of the actual lab where we came across a robonaut and Valkyrie.

Tuesday: Tuesday morning we were graced with the presence of Jerry Ross — a SEVEN time spacewalker. He was a tough act to follow, but two employees from Jacobs presented about Osiris Rex and we stayed equally as engaged. Following lunch we had another presenter from Johnson Space Center about planet protection…. my mind was blown. In the pictures below you will see his slide about the asteroids which have orbits that at some point intersect our own. I was mesmerized throughout his entire presentation. After this we loaded the bus and headed to the George Observatory outside of Houston for a very fun {and nerve wracking} Challenger Mission Control simulation.

Wednesday: Our day started with a very enthusiastic presentation by the one and only Astronaut Clay Anderson. This was followed by a presentation about the Curiosity Rover (which we later found out is sadly “limping” it’s way around Mars). After lunch we participated in several STEM activities and got a glimpse of a meteorite from Mars. We then jumped on the bus and headed to the Astromaterials lab where we saw many extraterrestrial objects and learned about the intense security needed for these items. We proceeded to mission control on the JSC campus and got a shock when they actually let us walk on the floor of the very active mission control. I also discovered that the flight director for the ISS is a HOKIE — he was excited to share that he flew his class ring up to the International Space Station. Of course I had to get a picture of that. They proceeded to take us to the historic {and now inactive} room where apollo mission control took place. We ended our festivities for this day relatively early, so I got a chance to meet up with a good friend from home and see a Chris Lane concert at the Kemah Boardwalk.

Thursday: Trust me when I say that just when we thought it couldn’t get any better… it got better. After exploring the food lab and getting a glimpse at the James Webb Telescope {which will be in orbit around the Sun, 1 MILLION miles from Earth by 2019} we were taken to the Neutral Buoyancy Lab where a mock up of the ISS sits 40 feet underwater for astronaut training. We happened to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right people to be given the opportunity to walk on the pool deck while new astronauts were training in the pool… another mind blowing moment. We left the NBL to get a walking tour of the Rocket Park by the man who created the thrusters aboard the Saturn 5 himself, Norm Chaffee. We wrapped up the day with a moving video about space exploration and an extremely informational presentation of current NASA endeavors followed by our private program banquet inside Space Center Houston.

Friday: By Friday my brain and heart were ready to explode. We concluded the program with a trip to Space Center Houston before departing for the airport. Being an advocate for STEM education and space exploration, I had the time of my life this week. I will add that regardless of your interest in space exploration I do believe this institute would have been engaging and mind blowing for just about anybody. I feel so privileged to have had the opportunity to meet so many wonderful teachers from around the nation, listen to passionate NASA employees who are inventing the future, and explore the grounds of the JSC and Space Center Houston. If you are a 4th-12th grade teacher in any STEM field, I definitely recommend applying to the 2018 Liftoff Summer Institute!


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