- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Physics teacher Jane Shamitko is pretty sure she will never get to Mars. However, she can experiment with what would happen if she dropped a ball on the red planet, where gravity is one-third of that on Earth.

Ms. Shamitko, of Washington, Pa., was among 30 mid-Atlantic-area teachers who experienced Martian gravity, lunar gravity and zero gravity last week, thanks to a program sponsored by the Northrop Grumman Foundation. The Weightless Flights of Discovery program travels the country, taking middle and high school math and science teachers on flights that mimic what astronauts feel.

Zero gravity is achieved by a series of parabolas, or arcs, at altitudes between 24,000 and 32,000 feet. The plane climbs at a 45-degree angle, and when it reaches the crest, it is pulled into a 30-second window of weightlessness. It is the same technique astronauts use to train for space flights. The flight includes 15 parabolas, giving the teachers many chances to conduct experiments or just fly around the specially modified cabin.

The flying, somersaulting and spinning turned a troop of veteran teachers into giddy schoolchildren.

“It was just unbelievable,” Ms. Shamitko said of the experience. “You had no weight. I don’t think I could have even imagined what that would have been like.”

Inspiring teachers’ imaginations as well as passion for science is the goal of the Weightless Flights of Discovery, says program manager Cheryl Horn. The program began in 2006 because middle school “seems to be the age where students lose interest in math and science,” she said.

“We need engineers and scientists,” Ms. Horn said. “We need to get them into the pipeline.”

This year, more than 100 teachers have taken part in flights in four cities, including last week’s flight from the District. Since 2006, about 1,000 teachers have participated. That translates into thousands of students vicariously experiencing space and perhaps being inspired toward a scientific career.

Ms. Shamitko, 59, said the U.S. space program has been around so long that her high school students, born in the early 1990s, take it for granted.

“Even by the time these kids were born, space flight had become rather blase,” she said. “It hardly ever makes front-page news. But I grew up with it. Your heart would be in your mouth if you watched John Glenn. Would I have had the right stuff to go into space? I’m not so sure. But it was a dream of mine, and now I can fulfill it.”

Many of the teachers looked at the Weightless Flights of Discovery as the next best thing to going into space. They brought with them messages from their students as well as stuffed school mascots. Pamela Pennington, a science teacher at Rocky Hill Middle School in Montgomery County, pinned her brother’s military-service American-flag patch to her flight suit. Ms. Pennington conducted experiments on acceleration and how the weight of a stuffed wildcat, the school’s mascot, changed with the gravity conditions.

“It was awesome,” Ms. Pennington said. “The flight was a really cool experience. It is going to be a great thing to take back to my kids. They are going to love this.”

The teachers, who participated in a preflight workshop about a month earlier, got to take part in more informal discovery as well. They tried to “drink” water, which floats in the air in zero gravity. They grabbed at and ate M&Ms that flew about the cabin. they cartwheeled and floated and rebounded off the ceiling.

“This was a phenomenal opportunity,” said Fairfax County teacher Maryanne Donelan. “It shows that studying science is exciting, challenging and has tons of possibilities. A long-term dream of mine had been to see a space-shuttle launch, which I did. This experience, though, was beyond my wildest dreams.”

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