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A teacher who encourages his students to reach for the stars has achieved prestigious heights himself as winner of the 1988 Christa McAuliffe Award of the Air Force Association.

John Barainca, a science instructor at Brighton High School, will receive official notification Tuesday evening that he is the winner of the McAuliffe Award for Aerospace Education. The announcement will be made during a dinner in the Airport Hilton with local members of the Air Force Association, government representatives and Civil Air Patrol members in attendance.The prestigious award itself will be presented Sept. 19 in Arlington, Va. The Brighton science teacher was selected from among more than 1,000 national candidates for the honor. Several years ago, Barainca was one of two Utah teachers selected as the state's candidates for the "Teacher in Space" program. McAuliffe won the honor of representing the nation's science teachers and was among those killed in the tragic explosion of Challenger II in January 1986.

In the down-to-earth business of teaching, Barainca has a way of convincing students that the sky is truly the limit.

"When our generation gets out of college, everyday space travel will be a reality," said an enthusiastic Amber Kier. "People will be taking vacations on the moon - sightseeing. I want to be there."

"He teaches in a way that is off the path of other teachers. It's off the path of textbooks and into actual

xperience," said Pete Fesler. "Students who have interests find Mr. Barainca, and he takes them and makes them realize it's possible."

The "possibles" that occur in Barainca's classroom include simulated space flights in Star Lab. Students shut themselves inside the re-created spacecraft that occupies one corner of his classroom and spend up to five days in a startlingly realistic creation of a space experience. The program is one of the first in the country and one of the finest, the students say.

Barainca is not the commander of these forays into a world that few understand. He is a figure in the background - without whom none of it would happen.

"I'm here. I'm in the room, but I sit in the background and watch them work. They make the decisions, unless something critical happens."

His benign leadership is appreciated by students who are sharp and eager to test their capacities in a new situation. "He is very motivated and cares about what his students want to be involved in," Kier said. "And he knows a lot about what he tries to teach us."

Barainca stretched and tested his own enthusiasms as a young man, becoming a pilot at 18 and preparing for a career as a teacher as a way to share his love for science.

At 52, he sees his own chances of space travel waning, but he is assured that "I may get into space through these kids."

Barainca combined his interests in the sciences of space and biology when he helped students design a space experiment that was included in a Get-Away Special a few years ago. The experiment depended on another aboard the space craft for power, and when the "host" experiment failed, the Brighton project -the only one of its kind in space history for a high school group - did not come to fruition.

The experiment was to learn how seed germination would be affected by the lack of gravity in space, Bar-ainca said. "Gravity has a lot to do with orienting the roots and shoots of a plant," he said. "We wanted to see if in space we could use light as a stimulus to control the direction of growth."

The experiment has been redesigned - with its own power source - and is waiting resumption of U.S. space experimentation to continue the quest for answers to space agriculture.