About 80 young faces were fixed intently on a tableful of whirring panels, buzzing boxes and shining visors worthy of a "Star Wars" Jeddi knight. Only these, the earnest young woman tried to convince her audience, were for real. "And we've told you that each and every one of you can be an astronaut, and that's true," she said. Then she flicked on a film of astronauts floating weightless in a space capsule.
On Monday morning, the vivacious NASA lecturer began a year-long program of activities at the Nannie Helen Burroughs School. One of 7,000 programs run annually in schools across the nation, it was designed and will be administered by the Education and Community Services arm of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Since its birth in 1953, NASA has organized thousands of these programs in hopes that students will find the aerospace world so fascinating they will choose careers in science in general, space science in particular. "By the time this year's sixth graders (finish their educations), about one sixth of them will be employed in space-related industries," said Martha Trumbauer, who travels around the country making presentations like the one given at the Northeast school. "But many of the students don't know that," she added.
Curtis Graves, chief of NASA's education branch, said his agency will send a representative to any school that requests a presentation, but so far, few District schools have done so. He said the programs have been more popular with school administrators in Maryland and Virginia.
Teachers at Nannie Helen Burroughs were enthusiastic about introducing more black youngsters to the space sciences.
"That's one reason our boys and girls don't get into these things -- because they don't know about them," said Aurelia Downey, president of the 71-year-old private school, in her speech to the assembly of students and some parents.She seemed almost more delighted about it than they were.
"We want to give God the glory because we are getting all of this without any cost to us," said Downey.
"Amen," the audience replied in unison.