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Bringing It All Down to Earth Teaching and Space Technology

Over thirty years ago, President Kennedy challenged the Nation to land a man on the surface of the Moon and to return him safely to Earth. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) not only accomplished this goal, but also placed America in a preeminent position of space exploration, reaping amazing technical and scientific benefits along the way. The Goddard Space Flight Center, in Greenbelt, Maryland, continues to play a major role in this on-going space adventure.

Just as the Goddard Space Flight Center has important responsibilities in the field of space progress, volunteers have important responsibilities for bringing the achievements of the Center down to Earth. Goddard volunteers face a variety of challenges, beginning with the visitor s preconceived notions of the space program.

Many potential visitors, knowing Goddard is a scientific facility, fear they will not comprehend complex scientific concepts. Cheerful volunteers and a life size model of Dr. Robert Goddard, the “father of modern rocketry,” greet visitors to the Space Flight Center. These reassuring faces help visitors understand at once that this is an accessible and enjoyable learning environment.

Computer games and interactive exhibits — always with a “real” person standing by — help visitors learn complex principles in small doses. One popular interactive exhibit, “Design Your Own Satellite,” allows visitors to learn about and select the function, power, communication, and data storage capabilities of spacecraft. Through a user-friendly computer program, in a step-by-step process, visitors choose a launch vehicle, the mission of the satellite, the instruments, and power requirements. Then, visitors take pre-flight tests. Depending on the combination of choices entered into the computer, the spacecraft project may not get off the ground because it ran out of money, is overweight, or has an inadequate power system. On the other hand, it could be launched without a hitch.

Volunteers guide guests through the Visitor Center by engaging them with exhibits such as these, often explaining scientific principles with down-to-Earth common sense. The volunteer has learned to communicate scientific principles effectively by keeping them brief and by using analogies and vocabulary appropriate for the age group of the audience. For example, children discover that the lights on the astronaut’s helmet perform the same function as the headlights on automobiles.

The guides also have learned that once someone pushes a button to activate an exhibit, the exhibit activates their interest. Volunteers encourage visitors to sit in the “gyro chair,” which shows the operator how a spinning wheel can turn a spacecraft, or operate the Manned Maneuvering Unit that allows them to try to dock with a spacecraft. After just a few tries in these special chairs, the participants leave with a better understanding of the difficulty of keeping a spacecraft in balance.

People Power
Volunteers at the Goddard Visitor Center offer hands-on demonstrations to capture the interest of the audience. One popular demonstration contains a mock-up of a space suit. For elementary school visitors, the highlight of the demonstration is the teacher-turned-model, as the students assess their teacher’s stage presence in a space suit. After the laughter, questions begin. The volunteer uses these questions to explain fundamental aspects of living and working in space. For example, in response to a question about what is worn under space suits, the volunteer would explain that astronauts wear a special form of “underclothing” netted with watercooling tubes that keep them comfortable in the harsh environment of space.

Special programs at the Visitor Center, such as Star Watches, encourage visitors to look up at the wonders of the night sky. With the help of the volunteers, the novice astronomer can learn to operate a telescope and view the rings of Saturn, the storm of Jupiter, the craters of the Moon, and the distant galaxies.

Another popular event that stimulates interest in science is the model rocket launches. Volunteers help make each session a tutorial in rocketry and science. Rockets launched include scale models of NASA rockets, Saturn rockets, and a variety of military rockets. While many people use commercially prepared rocket kits, some hobbyists design their own rockets. In the tradition of NASA activities and launches, all phases are monitored for safety.

Please Follow Me
Exhibits and demonstrations at the Visitor Center are one way to reach visitors; the other is guided tours of Goddard facilities. Through these experiences, the visitor Volunteers begins to understand interactive Goddard’ s research and development environment.

The tour begins in a facility that builds and tests spacecraft. Visitors see a full scale mock-up of the space shuttle’s cargo bay as scientists and engineers work on their projects. The shuttle mock-up is used to ensure that spacecraft launched by the shuttle will indeed fit in the cargo bay.

The volunteer explains that a spacecraft must be built in a dust-free environment and guides the group to one of the largest clean rooms in the world. Many visitors are astonished to see actual spacecraft built before their eyes.

At another stop, visitors see the NASA Communications Facility (NASCOM), a world-wide complex of communications services including data, voice teletype, and television systems.

Many visitors are surprised to learn that the Hubble Space Telescope’s Operations Control Center is located at Goddard. Through a special viewing area of the Control Center, visitors can watch engineers control the orbiting observatory and maintain an around-the-clock vigil from an array of consoles. Visitors see the complexity of such control centers with their various computers, consoles and monitors, as well as a cooperative, friendly work atmosphere. These technical areas become friendlier and more understandable through the volunteer’s description. use a NASA space suit and flight jacket as tools with school-aged visitors.

Pulling an Experience Together
At Goddard, the volunteer’s job is to “humanize” the complex world of space exploration. While high-tech exhibits and interactive displays engage the visitor’s interest, Goddard’s volunteers make the foreboding seem friendly by providing supervision, teaching with analogies and demonstrations, prompting observation and visitor engagement with exhibits, and offering lots of encouragement.

Darlene Ahalt is a Public Affairs Specialist in the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Office of Public Affairs, where she began as a secretary in 1973. She has been the Volunteer Coordinator since starting the Volunteer Program in 1980. She also is the Speakers Bureau and Protocol Tour Coordinator. She has been a member of the Goddard Employee Welfare Executive Council for the past four years and has received numerous awards during her civil service career.

Ahalt, Darlene. “Bringing It all Down to Earth: Teaching and Space Technology” The Docent Educator 1.4 (Summer 1992): 6-7.

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