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Learning the Right Stuff

Space camp inspires local teacher.

In the course of a week, Gena Rohlfs commanded the crew of a space shuttle, survived a helicopter crash landing, and parachuted into a lake unscathed.

With a grin, the sixth grade teacher at Forest Edge Elementary School explains that space camp is not just for children.

Last month in Huntsville, Ala., Rohlfs joined about 100 other educators for an experience out of this world.

Her training sessions included several simulations that could rival any amusement park, like the multi-axis simulator (“For 45 seconds, you are just swirling”) and the centrifugal gravity enhancer (“You certainly do feel the [G-Force]”), or the spinning chair (“It spins you like a gyroscope”).

She was rescued after a faux helicopter crash and rode a zipwire to simulate a parachute landing.

IN ANOTHER MOCK-UP, campers were strapped into a sophisticated suspension system. “It makes you relatively weightless and simulates walking on the moon,” said Rohlfs.

“This was really cool,” said Rohlfs repeatedly, pointing to picture after picture of her or other teammates on the equipment used to train real astronauts.

But it doesn’t take Rohlfs more than a half second to pinpoint her most memorable experience: “Being commander of the space shuttle Discovery,” said Rohlfs, who was part of the team “Inspiration.”

For two hours, during a sophisticated simulation, Rohlfs sat at the helm of a replica shuttle cockpit and led her flight crew on a mission into space, coordinating their efforts with mission control back in Houston. Despite various curveballs and warning signals, the mission was successful.

“IT FAR EXCEEDED my expectations. We lived like, trained like and worked like astronauts,” said Rohlfs of her week at the United States Space Camp. “It’s so dynamic, you come back so excited about space.”

The Oak Hill resident who has been teaching for 20 years plans to channel her enthusiasm this fall into another mission, also one of inspiration. “I’d like to see all the students enjoy the adventures of space, to work in groups like we did to build up the camaraderie,” she said. “To make more of a connection to math and science through what we learned at Space Camp.”

Rohlfs, whose trip was sponsored by Boeing, learned from astronauts and scientists at numerous workshops focused on using space exploration to get students more excited about the sciences.

UNVARYINGLY, CAMP ALUMNI plan to take all they learned back to their respective classrooms. “I just really enjoyed getting ideas to take back to inspire my students,” said Emily Cripps, a sixth grade math teacher in Sterling.

“Statistics show that if we don’t excite the children [about math and science] at an early age, then we lose them. They’re not interested in science,” said Rohlfs.

It’s a growing concern at Boeing, the company who not only sponsored Rohlfs’ trip, but several other local educators’ trips to space camp as well.

Space exploration can play a key role in the goal of exciting children about science, said Mike Lounge, a former astronaut who now works with Boeing. “It can help capture the imagination of our youth.”

Lounge, who spoke at a reunion for the alumni campers at the National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar Hazy Center near Dulles Airport, said sending teachers to things like space camp will help America keep its edge in space exploration.

BEFORE LEAVING the get-together, 11 of the alumni, dressed in blue jumpsuits, similar to ones astronauts wear, gathered in front of the Space Shuttle Enterprise for a picture.

Anticipating the photo opportunity, the group was asked to bring their jumpsuits, which are decked out with patches of the space shuttle, the NASA insignia and the American Flag.

“Are you astronauts?” asked a young boy mesmerized by the group as it moved through the main floor of the museum.

“No,” said Rohlfs, “But we just graduated from space camp.”