Written By: Greg Yee, Long Beach Press-Telegram
DOWNEY >> The future of space flight came to life for hundreds of children across the country Tuesday morning at the Columbia Memorial Space Center.
The Downey-based center hosted a question-and-answer session with future astronauts and experts from Virgin Galactic, a subsidiary of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group that plans to begin commercial flights into orbit around the Earth.
About 60 fifth-grade students from Unsworth Elementary School in Downey were joined via video conference by middle and elementary school students at Challenger Learning Centers in Louisville, Ky., Albuquerque, N.M., Tallahassee, Fla., and Chattanooga, Tenn.
William Pomerantz, vice president of special projects at Virgin Galactic, described how the company’s ship, SpaceShip Two, flies into orbit.
“We start the mission at the end of a normal runway,” he said. “We’re docked on the mothership that takes us up to 50,000 feet.”
At that point, the ship is released and its rocket engine propels the six passengers and two pilots into orbit.
“We’re going to take you up so fast that you’re going to be traveling faster than sound itself,” Pomerantz said, followed by “oohs” and “aaahs” from the children.
Then he described how the ship folds its wings to decrease atmospheric resistance upon re-entry.
“We built something that’s not just a spaceship, it’s also a transformer,” Pomerantz said.
Tuesday’s program was part of an initiative at the Columbia Memorial center and other Challenger Learning Centers across the country to encourage student interest in science, technology, engineering and math education, known as STEM.
After the question-and- answer panel, the children completed a moon landing mission in a simulator at the Downey facility.
Alicia Cazares, a 10-year-old Unsworth Elementary School fifth-grader, said she looked forward to Tuesday morning’s trip to the space center and to asking the astronauts questions.
“I like learning about space,” she said. “I was a little nervous about the (simulated) mission, but I’m excited.”
Aldo Lucio said he was thrilled by the morning’s activities and presentation.
“It’s a new experience,” he said. “I learned about the new spaceship and what an astronaut has to do to prepare (for space travel). I would like to be one someday.”
Laura Esqueda, a fifth-grade teacher at Unsworth Elementary, said she is pleased that her students have the opportunity to immerse themselves in hands-on STEM activities.
“For me, it was amazing just to watch them,” she said. “I think the kids are definitely inspired.”
Pomerantz encouraged the children to invest themselves in STEM education and to take an interest in space travel.
“When more people get a chance to go, we’re going to do so much more,” Pomerantz said. “Only 542 people have ever been to space. I want that number to be 5 million or 500 million.”