Simulated spaceflights have been a staple of education for Brighton High School students ever since science teacher John Barainca built a space capsule in the corner of his classroom.
And considering how many students, teachers and even parent-child "astronaut" teams have taken trips to the stars in the flight simulator known as Starlab over the past several years, it's not surprising that the capsule is looking a little worn out.This year alone, teams of nine to 12 astronauts and about 60 mission control center scientists have worked round the-clock shifts during 19 five-day Starlab space capsule "flights." Many more people want to go on Starlab missions than the tiny simulator can accommodate.
Starlab has served the school science community well. But it's time, educators say, to expand the Jordan District's aerospace program.
The district board has enthusiastically endorsed plans for the Aerospace Center for Technology and Science, which Assistant Superintendent Thomas Owen says will be the first facility of its kind in the western United States.
The aerospace center is Barainca's brainchild, and its mission is to teach science and technology in a futuristic environment.
Students in the United States are lagging far behind those in other nations in technological fields, and Utah's students are among the worst-prepared, according to a recent federal study. Though not a panacea for inadequacies in science and math education, the Jordan aerospace center curriculum could go a long way to reverse that trend, Barainca said.
"There isn't enough science being taught in grade school, and it's a crying shame," he said. And even when lower-grade teachers do emphasize science, the students "don't get a chance to do much with it."
Creating the aerospace center "is something that can make a difference. And it's the direction we should be going," he said. "Teachers should always be looking over the horizon."
Besides math, physics and other aerospace sciences, the students would learn nutrition, communications, creative writing and teamwork, all in an exciting context.
"When you think about all the aspects of space travel, you don't have to stretch your imagination to realize it touches all aspects of school curriculum," he said.
The aerospace center will be located at the Jordan Technical Center behind the district offices on 9000 South in Sandy. Vocational education students will assist in the aerospace center's construction. When completed, it will feature a full-size replica of the space stations the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is developing.
Along with the space center modules, the center will have classrooms and laboratories for students in grades four through 12. Plans also include two mobile space labs built into semitrailer trucks that would be able to park at elementary and middle-school campuses for two weeks at a time.
Barainca hesitated to estimate what the center's cost would be, other than to say it would cost a few hundred thousand dollars. Funding will probably come through grants and donations from private industry, he said.
A pilot for more than 30 years, Barainca became interested in physics and astronomy in college. Along the way, the notion of space travel captured his heart.
Barainca was one of two Utah teachers nominated to fly on the space shuttle Challenger II. In 1988, the Air Force Association named him the winner of the McAuliffe Award for Aerospace Education, named for Christa McAuliffe, the teacher who was among those killed when Challenger II exploded in January 1986. In 1989, the Utah section of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics named Barainca Educator of the Year.
Though he says it is not likely he will ever get a chance to actually go into space, Barainca has not ruled out applying for a seat open to an American teacher on an upcoming Soviet Mir flight.
"I'd do it in a minute," he said. "If they called me and said, `Can you be there tomorrow?' there'd be no hesitation."