Sunday, July 31, 2011

Is Re-Entry A Go?

Each time I have returned from a trip where I have congregated with the other state teachers of the year—a group filled with people who have unexpectedly become some of my dearest friends—I have used the term “re-entry.”  The time spent with them is always filled with professional learning, passionate conversation, uncontrollable laughter, and adventure after adventure, much as how we wish life could be, but is often not due to responsibility and routine.  So returning home where laundry, grading papers, and meals rule my schedule is always an interesting transition (my husband might use another adjective there), and “re-entry” does in fact nicely sum it all up. 

For the past week, I have been a space camper.  I have sat in classrooms and studied rocket propulsion systems.  I have met astronauts, authors (one of them was Homer Hickam, the author of Rocket Boys—the book that inspired the movie October Sky), and engineers.  I have sat quietly and reflected on that day back in seventh grade when I watched the Challenger explode, rode the bus quietly home, and then sat on my front porch crying for our lost New Hampshire teacher.  I have built bottle rockets, engine rockets, and thermal protection systems.  I have played math games, foolishly running around and grabbing friends’ hands so that our numbers would add up to the correct sum, and rolling dice in fierce competition.  I have piloted the most inappropriately and absurdly funny shuttle mission with one friend by my side as Commander and another in my ear as Mission Control, both of whom continuously keep me laughing.  I have proudly worn my flight suit in a picture taken next to my team after we landed our shuttle successfully, but not before hitting some trees and swamp.  I have eaten camp food that sat in my stomach like a brick, have slept on a plastic lined dorm bed, and have sat in the “commons” until the wee hours of the morning talking and always, always laughing.
One thing different about this gathering was the addition of some international teachers of the year.  When I first heard other teachers would be joining our group, I felt uneasy—I wasn’t sure how “outsiders” would fit in, but my worries were immediately dispelled as I spent early mornings and late nights in my dorm with my Norwegian roommate, listened to my Australian flight director beat box in our Mission Control headphones, accepted a new Swiss Army knife from a tall, lanky Swiss man with a sharp sense of humor, and walked arm in arm with my new Dutch friend.  Our group is already diverse, and instead of straining the dynamics, the addition of these 16 international teachers made us feel whole.  Yesterday morning, after another breakfast of cheesy eggs, biscuits, and grits, we said our goodbyes with tears.  They had become part of us.

On our final shuttle mission as a team, my job was to oversee our astronauts as they undertook a mission of repairing and replacing heat tiles on the outside of the shuttle so that it did not burn up upon re-entry.  The feeling of weightlessness was simulated for them by being suspended in an intricate system of straps and tethers.  They reported back numbers to me and then I guided them in the repairs—of which they completed with shaving cream and a spatula.  Without these repairs, the shuttle would not be able to sustain the immense heat that is experienced when re-entering the earth’s atmosphere.  One chink in the tiles could mean a disastrous return. 

I’ve been thinking about that the past couple of days as I had to perform my own re-entry.  The transition of moving from an environment where you feel weightless—unbound by the gravitational forces of life’s responsibilities—into one where your feet must land on the solid ground of reality is always a difficult matter for me. But I think I have my heat shields in order—my family, my friends, my health.  They might sustain some damage, just as heat shields often do, and I might still experience some turbulence, but as we would say in mission-esque speak, “T+01:23:12:08, all systems are nominal, and re-entry is a go.”

Roger that.

A few pictures from the week:
Pilot Angie and Commandersen Paul, after our successful  Discovery shuttle mission

Apollo 11 patch--the astronauts chose not to have their names on it, because they wanted it to represent  mankind.

Command module from Apollo 16 flight

Boarding the bus

Ryan (Minnesota), Jay (Washington State), Me, and Jeff (New York)--our  egg drop team

Matinga (Michigan) and Jeff (Pennsylvania) work on our bottle rocket 

Joe (Delaware) enjoys another camp breakfast of sausage and grits.

A moon rock

The Pathfinder

Me in the pilot's seat of Discovery

One of my favorite views--the rockets silhouetting each other

John from Greece closely inspects our thermal protection unit


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