Educator Features

A Successful "Plan B"
Crew signatures surround a picture of the space station

The Ford School was presented with a picture of the International Space Station, signed by the members of the STS-118 shuttle crew.
Image Credit: Ford School

A key factor for any successful spaceflight is being able to expect the unexpected.

Contingency planning is an important part of any NASA mission. Planners not only prepare for the events that are supposed to occur on the mission, but also work to anticipate any surprises -- good or bad -- that may arise. That way, astronauts and flight controllers are ready to respond right away to whatever might happen.

Faculty and students at the Robert L. Ford K-8 NASA Explorer School in Lynn, Mass., experienced that important spaceflight lesson firsthand during a recent event celebrating the STS-118 space shuttle mission. Thanks to the contingency planning done by the school and NASA officials, the event turned out to be a huge success.

The Ford school was one of three in the nation chosen to participate in a live video downlink with astronauts on the shuttle mission, including Mission Specialist Barbara Morgan, NASA's first Educator Astronaut.

From the beginning, contingency planning was a key factor for the downlink event. STS-118 was planned as an 11-day mission, with time for one downlink. However, if a new piece of shuttle hardware worked correctly the first time it was used, the mission could be extended, allowing time for the other two downlinks, including the Ford event.

The space shuttle Endeavour launched and docked with the International Space Station successfully. The power transfer hardware was activated, causing the mission to be extended and the Ford downlink was officially announced.

However, before the end of the mission, NASA once again had to respond to an unplanned situation. Hurricane Dean threatened the Houston area, where Mission Control is located at NASA's Johnson Space Center, and forced the agency to end the mission one day early. At the time that the Ford downlink had been scheduled, Endeavour's crew was occupied with undocking from the International Space Station.

After months of planning, the downlink that had been approved was cancelled. However, the Ford school event was still on and their activities would continue.

Since there was always a possibility that the downlink might not take place, NASA and school officials had made plans around that contingency. When the decision to cancel the downlink was made, the school was already prepared, and still hosted a successful celebration of the STS-118 mission.

Many local community and education leaders participated in the event, including Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy, who called and spoke to the crowd. NASA officials, including Joyce Winterton, the assistant administrator for education, were in attendance and spoke at the event.

Attending the celebration was another very special guest -- Grace Corrigan, mother of Christa McAuliffe, the teacher who was killed in the 1986 Challenger accident. The Ford school is affiliated with the Christa McAuliffe Center, an educational organization based at Framington State College. Through the McAuliffe Center and the Challenger Learning Center located there, students were very familiar with McAuliffe's mission and had been looking forward to seeing that mission continued through McAuliffe's back-up, astronaut Barbara Morgan, on STS-118.

Though the downlink with STS-118 could not take place, students at the school were still able to ask questions to several astronauts. Through the NASA Digital Learning Network, students were able to talk to space station Expedition 12 Commander Bill McArthur and Mission Specialist Joe Acaba. In the future, the students will still have an opportunity to talk to Barbara Morgan.

Students' reactions to the event, and particularly the DLN conversation with the astronauts, were very enthusiastic.

"Getting an opportunity to talk to an astronaut is something most don't get,' said eighth-grader Joelli. "I did, and it was awesome."

Another eighth-grade student, Kenny, said, "I learned a lot. Hearing about what it was like to see Earth from space was amazing."

"I thought the astronaut's answer to my question was great," said eighth-grader Michael. "His answer to future space missions was like listening to Lewis and Clark."

"It was cool and very exciting," said Victoria, a sixth-grader. "I would love to be able to talk with them again. It has made me think about working for NASA when I get older."

Ford was selected in 2006 as a participant in the NASA Explorer Schools project. This project lets NASA enter into partnerships with selected schools and engages students, educators and families with science, technology, engineering and mathematics. A competitive application process and selection of new NES teams occur each spring. With this project, NASA continues its tradition of investing in the nation's education programs. NES is directly tied to the agency's major education goal of attracting and retaining students in STEM disciplines.

Related Resources
Engineering Design Challenge
NASA Explorer Schools  →
NASA Digital Learning Network  →
NASA Education Web site  →
Challenger Center for Space Science Education  →
Expedition 12
International Space Station

David Hitt/NASA Educational Technology Services