This Joy Ride Brings Out Teachers' Lighter Side

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 14, 2007

Instead of teaching science at their Sterling middle school yesterday, Lynn Austin was doing somersaults, suspended in the air. Rhonda Labuhn was flying like Superman. Christopher Souther was playing a game of teacher toss, and he was the one being tossed.

The Seneca Ridge Middle School teachers were among 60 educators from across the Washington region on an unusual field trip to Dulles International Airport for a chance to levitate inside the belly of a Boeing 757.

"I didn't know what was upside down or what was right side up or what was inside out," said Austin, an eighth-grade physical science teacher, after experiencing weightlessness for the first time.

The five teachers from Seneca Ridge applied independently for the chance to experience simulated zero gravity and to sample the kind of training astronauts undergo to prepare for space missions. When they found they had all been selected for the trip, they dubbed themselves the Seneca 5 and stitched the school emblem, a yellow thunderbolt, onto their flight suits.

"Godspeed, Seneca 5," Principal Mark McDermott declared over the school public address system before they embarked on their own weightless mission.

Officials at Northrop Grumman, which sponsors the two-year-old program, hopes that the experience will inspire math and science teachers and that the teachers, in turn, will inspire students to pursue engineering or technology careers and perhaps mount their own space missions one day.

Yesterday morning, the Seneca 5 strutted down the tarmac at Dulles International Airport, looking like fliers in the movie "Top Gun" -- minus the Ray-Bans. By lunchtime, they were levitating in the "floating lounge" of the airplane, free of students, papers, and lab work.

It takes a vertical climb of about 200 miles to reach weightlessness, but the feeling can be simulated by taking an airplane from a steep climb into a steep dive between 24,000 and 32,000 feet.

During the more-than-45-degree climbs, the teachers lay flat on cushioned mats, their bodies pressed to the ground by nearly twice the familiar force of gravity. But as the airplane crested and began to fall, they shed all their pounds and a few years as they floated up giggling.

On the first of 15 arcs, the pilot simulated the gravitational pull of Mars, which is about a third as strong as Earth's. On the second arc, the pilot simulated the gravity of the moon, about a sixth as strong as Earth's. The teachers began to bounce.

Finally, in zero gravity, they did back flips. "I felt like Peter Pan," said Sheryl Dufour, an eighth-grade math teacher.

In between somersaults, the science teachers conducted experiments. Austin, Labuhn and Rick Peck, a sixth-grade teacher, repeating a classroom experiment, put drops of water on pennies they had attached to elastic bands on their wrists. They wanted to see how many drops they could add before the water spilled over the edge.

Without gravity, they found, they could build a bigger bubble of water, but it was harder to squeeze the liquid out of the dropper.

Souther, a life science teacher, attached a heart monitor and blood pressure gauge to himself, for a comparison of vital signs on land and in simulated space. As the flight neared completion, Souther realized that his monitor wasn't working. But by then, he had another, unplanned, biology lesson he could share with students. In one of the transitions from weightlessness, a colleague had scratched Souther's forehead.

Pointing to his bandage, he said he could tell his students that the heart still beats and blood still flows in zero gravity.

The teachers plan to take their stories and videotapes back to the classroom, so that when teaching lessons about outer space, Newton's laws or velocity, they can provide examples.

Many on the trip said that learning about space exploration had affected them at an early age and stoked their own interest in science.

Austin vividly recalled sitting at a football game in Fort Worth at age 17 when she heard about the first Sputnik launch. Souther was 7 when Neil Armstrong took the first steps on the moon.

"I remember watching it on TV like it was yesterday," he said. "This may be as close as I'll ever come to walking on the moon, but you never know."

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