As a matter of fact, it <I>is</I> Rocket Science
BISMARCK – Atlantis astronaut Joe Tanner took a walk in space on Tuesday morning.
More than 220 miles below, 21 first-graders at Bismarck-Henning Elementary School – Tanner's alma mater – undertook their own space shuttle mission.
"We've been waiting for this for a long time," teacher Mary McCool said of a project to build and launch rockets.
McCool's students and 42 other first-graders in Carol Finley and Rhonda Miller's classes have been studying Tanner, a Danville native and University of Illinois graduate, and the Atlantis shuttle mission to the international space station.
Tanner, 56, attended Bismarck schools in the 1960s. He graduated from Danville High School in 1968 and from the University of Illinois with a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering in 1973.
On Saturday, Tanner and the Atlantis crew launched into space. Their 11-day mission to transport and attach a 17-ton segment of solar panels and batteries to the space station is Tanner's fourth and likely last mission.
On Tuesday morning, Tanner and astronaut Heide Stefanyshyn-Piper, both mission specialists, worked in space for more than six hours preparing the station's newly installed P3/P4 truss for operation, according to the NASA Web site. The truss will double the station's power capabilities.
Later that afternoon, McCool's students built rockets with paper, scissors, glue and a film canister filled with vinegar. After assembling the miniature shuttles, they took them outside near the playground to launch.
One by one, the pupils dropped a teaspoon of baking soda wrapped in a toilet-paper pouch into the container of vinegar.
Next, they quickly snapped on the cap and placed the rocket on a paper plate launching pad.
Then came the countdown.
"5, 4, 3 ...," the pupils shouted from the sidelines as the rockets blasted off.
"That was awesome," Alex Spiros said with a grin after his shuttle shot a couple of feet into the air, spraying vinegar.
Back inside, pupils talked about watching a video of Saturday's launch.
"It was cool," said Taylor Hicks, 6.
"It looked like a big airplane with fire coming out of the bottom," added Allie Dawson, 6.
They also talked about what they would like to ask Tanner if they had the chance.
"Did he like his spacesuit?" asked Matthew Anderson, 6.
"What was the spacewalk like?" Alex asked.
"If he goes up again, can he bring me?" Allie wanted to know.
The teachers said the students might have a chance to ask those questions when Tanner returns to present the school with a poster, which students sent him and he took aboard the shuttle.
Principal Laura Girton said the poster spells out BHES with tiny, individual head shots of the entire student body. It will be framed and hung on a wall along with a quilt, poster and photograph the astronaut took with him on his previous missions, as well as pictures and patches from those trips.
The teachers said Tanner's current mission has been a good learning tool.
"Obviously ... the kids have a connection to him," Finley said. "It shows them you can have small-town roots and still do something big."
"It teaches them that they can do anything they want, even become an astronaut," she said. "It's going to take a long time and a lot of hard work. But if that's what they want to do and they put their mind to it, then they can do it."