One small trip for a man, one giant leap for education

Tia Lynn Ivey Community, Featured


One of Morgan County High School’s (MCHS) science teachers was selected to work this summer at NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) to create education and outreach materials for teachers and students.

 Alec Johnson packed up his wife and two small children for a summer experience of a lifetime at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. For eight weeks, Johnson worked in the NASA Exploration Ground Systems Program, developing various educational and outreach products involving the physics of rocket launches and landings. Johnson and his family were even able to witness a rocket launch from NASA’s base in Florida.

 “It was just an absolutely incredible experience. It’s amazing that I was chosen for this program and was able to take my family along. I was very humbled to be working alongside such brilliant minds while working on my projects. I was even able to tour the large Vehicle Assembly Building, the historic Launchpad 39B, the mobile launcher, and much more,” said Johnson.

 Perhaps Johnson’s tenure at NASA was written in the stars. He happened to stay behind after a session at a science teacher conference in March to talk to a speaker, Dr. Lester Morales, who told Johnson about the program and a potential opportunity. Only Johnson and one other educator were chosen to create education materials at NASA this summer, and he was the teacher that worked specifically with the Exploration Ground Systems program.

 According to NASA, “The Exploration Ground Systems Program (EGS) is one of three NASA programs based at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, including the Launch Services and the Commercial Crew programs. EGS was established to develop and operate the systems and facilities necessary to process and launch rockets and spacecraft during assembly, transport and launch. EGS’s mission is to transform the center from a historically government-only launch complex to a spaceport that can handle several different kinds of spacecraft and rockets and NASA’s exploration objectives by developing the necessary ground systems, infrastructure and operational approaches. Unlike previous work focusing on a single kind of launch vehicle, such as the Saturn V or space shuttle, engineers and managers in EGS are preparing infrastructure to support several different kinds of spacecraft and rockets that are in development, including NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft for Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1). A key aspect of the program’s approach to long-term sustainability and affordability is to make processing and launch infrastructure available to commercial and other government customers, thereby distributing the cost among multiple users and reducing the cost of access to space.”

 Johnson plans on using this experience, the educational guide he created, and many other projects that he worked on with his students at MCHS. Johnson teaches physics, chemistry, and astronomy.

 “The guide that I created I am going to immediately start using this year,” said Johnson. “I can’t wait to share the knowledge that I gained on all the different things that NASA does. It’s not just rockets. Rockets are just a small part of all the different programs they have, not including what it takes to get them designed, built and launched. I am going to try to incorporate it in all the classes I teach. I just fell in love with what I saw at Kennedy and created with the outreach team,” said Johnson, who developed a 40-page physics lesson guide about splashdown and recovery. The guided curriculum is designed for teachers to use over the course of several weeks.

“At the heart of the guide is project-based learning and authentic learning through the engineering design process,” said Johnson. “It’s all about the physics of splashdown and recovery operations, which involves three main challenges where kids design a parachute system to slow down a capsule, develop how to survive collisions into water at 50 to 60 miles per hour, and figuring out how to keep the capsule buoyancy–to keep the capsule afloat. The entire guide was based on conversations and interviews that I had with actual NASA engineers working in the program.”

 Johnson’s guide features various visuals to help students understand the process of rocket launching and landing.

 “It shows the physics of the new Space Launch System rocket and Orion Crew capsule parts coming into Kennedy, being serviced by Exploration Ground Systems, including the entire process of them being built, moved to the launchpad and launched to the moon,” explained Johnson. “Students can see what we are learning in class and be able to relate it to what NASA is doing in their current mission.”

 According to Johnson, NASA is set to launch its new Orion capsule in late 2019 to go around the moon several times, send out satellites, and collect observations of the moon. The mission is called Exploration Mission-1 and is an unmanned test run before a manned mission and future missions to the moon and eventually Mars.

 During Johnson’s summer working with NASA, he also helped design materials and create the structure for EGS’s first mentor program that kicks-off this August. There will be ten mentors, comprised NASA personal in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) fields and backgrounds, to work with teachers and students to not only share what NASA is working on but to help them with science fairs, robotics competitions, and general science projects in the classroom. The pilot mentor program will be tested with a seventh-grade class in a Title I school near the Kennedy Space Center.

“I am very proud to have had a part in the creation of the mentorship program at EGS and am excited to see its success over the course of this year,” said Johnson.

 Johnson believes everyone can benefit from learning about NASA’s work in the world and outer space.

 “NASA itself is extremely diverse with many different kinds of people working there and doing so many awesome things,” said Johnson. “The creativity and ideas that come out of NASA are incredible, and a large part of that is because of that diversity of people. I know that we are a small rural town here in Morgan County and people do not always think, care, or know about the ways in which NASA impacts them, but there is so much that has come out of the space program that influences everyone in the U.S. The biggest thing that I learned while I was there was that anyone from any background can work there, as long as they have the drive and vision to excel and be the best that they can be. It’s a big deal and I’m excited to share that with as many students that will listen.”

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