A Mesa teacher who has led students through simulated space shuttle flights for the last nine years went on a space mission of her own last week — a "spacewalk" with a Russian cosmonaut.
Colleen Howard, a fifthgrade teacher at Washington Elementary School, did this within the confines of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala., but the simulation was realistic enough to leave her in awe.
Howard and 23 other American teachers joined five instructors from abroad in Huntsville for the Boeing Educators to Space Camp program, which wrapped up Sunday.
Just like a real-life spacewalk, she and Alexandre Lazoutkine, who went to the Mir space station in 1997, could talk to each other, but couldn’t see each other.
"We were trying to restore some kind of power that had been lost on the Hubble telescope," she said of the simulation.
They transcended the language barrier, developing a shorthand as they worked to restore power to the telescope.
"And we managed to do that," Howard said. "It’s been so exciting."
Boeing, which has facilities in northeast Mesa and at Williams Gateway Airport, has awarded teachers grants to attend the camp for 12 years.
Howard caught the aerospace company’s eye in March after several Boeing engineers built small robots with the student "Mission Control" for the "USS Bulldog," the plywood-and-PVC-pipe space shuttle assembled every January on the stage of Washington Elementary’s multipurpose room.
Howard said the experience has given her ideas for improving the Bulldog, named after the school’s mascot.
The cockpit has a TV screen, which allows the "astronauts" to see what’s going on back in the student’s "Mission Control." Howard hopes to add another one so they can also have a window out to "space."
She’s had a ball at camp, pushing herself to do things she never thought she would, such as getting past her fear of heights to rope-climb a wall. She said she also has been reminded of what it’s like on the other end of the lesson plan.
"It gave me an opportunity to experience a lot of what the students go through," she said. "We’ll go in and say, ‘We don’t know what we’re supposed to do,’ or ‘I don’t understand,’ just like they do, and I always tell them it’s going to be OK."