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Students Simulate Shuttle Missions in 1980s

Teacher and students lined up alongside school bus.
Students prepare to embark on their shuttle mission on May 30, 1985.

On the morning of May 30, 1985, two student-crewed space shuttle vehicles, (actually reconfigured school buses) embarked on a four-hour mission that included experiments, data gathering, a vehicle rendezvous and a visit to another planet. The Simulated Shuttle event, sponsored by Lewis Research Center (now Glenn), was a tremendous success and an unforgettable day for not only scores of participating students, but the NASA employees and teachers who planned the mission.

Lynn Bondurant, head of Lewis’ Educational Services Office, conceived the Simulated Shuttle Program the previous summer during a workshop with teachers from the Beldon and Royal View elementary schools.

In the spring of 1985, the third through fifth grade students enthusiastically began preparing for the missions. One principal noted, ″I’ve seen kids who wouldn’t normally go to a library in a million years, do research and write reports for this project.”

The students created flight plans, mission patches, press kits and flight suits. Each school converted a bus into a space shuttle–complete with main engines, nose cone, tail and interior control stations.

Teachers worked with student committees that selected 36 astronauts and 18 alternates from a multitude of applicants. Each crew included a commander, pilot, photographer, communicator, health technician, scientist, meteorologist, engineer, biologist, geologist and aerial technician.

The extensive program, however, had roles for every interested student. These included devising experiments, manning mission control and communications centers, and forming medical teams.

Interior of bus decorated as space shuttle.
The staff and students at Royal View Elementary School modified the interior of a school bus to look like a space shuttle crew module.

After student-led countdowns, the two shuttles departed from their respective schools amid much fanfare. Local media and NASA photographers trailed in chase cars. During the journeys down local routes 82 and 303, the crews conducted experiments and made stops to deploy balloon “satellites.” The two vehicles also met at a local park to collect rock and vegetation samples.

Upon arrival at their home bases, the crews received mission debriefings and medical reviews. The astronauts gave brief speeches and received a congratulatory message from NASA Astronaut Sally Ride. This was followed by a celebratory parade that included a red carpet and confetti.

Students on outdoor stage with bus in background.
A teacher addresses the crowd gathered at Belden Elementary School to welcome the young astronauts back after their excursion.

The Simulated Shuttle day was a triumph and spirits were high afterward. Bondurant said, “From the people I’ve talked to who’ve seen a real shuttle launch, there was as much or more excitement here.” 

″We wanted to give the kids a moment they wouldn’t forget,” one school principal added, “and I think we accomplished that.″

The event repeated in 1987 and expanded to include eight schools.

Robert S. Arrighi
NASA’s Glenn Research Cente