The following is an e-mail that Dave Trejo, Founding Director of iLEAD Pacioma, wrote to his staff as he returned from the SpaceX 12 Launch on August 14, 2017. Through the Student Spaceflight Experiment Program‘s partnership with DreamUp, a small group of iLead Pacioma 6th graders launched a microgravity experiment to the International Space Station via the Dragon capsule on the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
This was originally published on Medium on August 15, 2017.
Today was one of the most remarkable days in my history as an educator, and I am proud to say I had very little to do with it.
We spent Sunday with the kids like a family on vacation. J taught the kids how to make breakfast: Alexii rocked the bacon. We went miniature golfing, and the kids got to feed adult gators and pet baby ones. We played spoons and J gave another culinary class for dinner. Daniel observed “Our science teacher taught us science, archery and now cooking!
I sewed SSEP patches on shirts, and J ironed shirts while the kids practiced fielding questions from Alexii’s uncle in preparation for their presentations today. Their insecurities and nerves were clearly on the surface but they didn’t verbalize any. Kazoos that Auguste purchased on our Target excursion were their go to when the stress was getting to them.
This morning Alexii rocked the bacon again and Auguste prepped the strawberries. J was the breakfast lead, and I helped the kids load the car and their poster. Things were a bit more real, but I don’t think we had adjusted to east coast time enough to fully understand what was about to happen. 25 minutes into our drive the 1st space shuttle became visible and I felt the same wonder and awe I did as a 5 year old watching launches on tv again. I think I was more excited than anyone at this point.
Tons of cars were pulling into the Kennedy Space Center. This was clearly a big deal to a lot of people. There was a huge line for people after they purchased their $50 tickets. Lines weren’t for us, we walked up and John Hamel from SSEP recognized J and the kids in their black iLEAD shirts. I immediately 2nd guessed my decision to wear a suit and tie. The humidity and sun were unforgivingly brutal but secretly we were just happy that clouds were not creeping in to threaten the launch. The last SSEP launch was postponed 30 minutes prior to the scheduled launch and today’s launch had already been postponed 2x.
The adults took place arranging and posing the kids for instagrammable pics. It was evident the adults found more value in this exercise than the kids. Nerves were rising to the surface as J confiscated 4 contraband Kazoos. “You can have them after the launch”
The actual big blue NASA ball from the logo and the Rocket Garden visible from the entrance helped fuel both excitement and anxiety. The crowd went silent, put their hands over their heart, looked up at a majestic waving flag and listened to the national anthem. The national anthem on launch day has the power to make everyone in its reach proud to be an American and temporarily suspend the fear and concerns given the political landscape. After the anthem we were given about an hour on our own before the busses would drive us to the viewpoint for the launch.
We found refuge from the humidity and heat in the air conditioned gift shop. We were buying time more than anything. I found new slap bracelets. I tried to quiz the kids as last minute prep for their presentations. They were having none of it this morning.
We made custom NASA flight patch stickers and boarded the bus. We found our way to the bleachers where we would view the launch. T-Minus 88 minutes and the heat and humidity seemed unbearable. Sweat poured down our faces, and minutes trudged along with no concern for our sense of urgency. Alexii’s uncle bought overpriced umbrellas we would later return. SSEP requested the kids begin their presentations inside the Saturn complex. The kids were anxious but the offer of air conditioning dwarfed their nerves.
J and the kids displayed their beautiful poster and had sporadic engagement. It didn’t help the cause that they were right next to a cool and interactive, walk like an astronaut exhibit.
A little after 12, everyone found their way back to the bleachers. We were under T-Minus 30 minutes and there were no whispers of cancellation. Holy Smokes! This was going to happen!
The countdown began, 10, 9, 8… holy smokes! Please don’t explode! Please don’t explode! Please don’t explode! 3, 2, 1… and then one of the most beautiful scenes I have ever had the honor and privilege of witnessing unfolded. The Falcon 9 Rocket 🚀 was thrust into the sky and nothing was going to hold it back. Many of us struggled to simultaneously record the launch on our digital devices to share with loved ones, and supporters, while also ensuring we were present to witness this event with our own eyes.
The Falcon 9 disappeared from sight and we turned to the monitor to wait for the rocket to detach from the cargo unit and return to the base 3 miles away. The rocket did just that, and made its way back to earth. How amazing are human beings?! Not only can they launch supplies and experiments into space, they can bring back the rocket, land it safely and reuse it! When the rocket snuck its way back into visibility, the audience erupted with applause and cheers. It landed safely and a sonic boom made clear this was an EVENT!
I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I fought back tears behind my aviators. Three of our learners had devised and created something that was on its way to space!!! I did my best to communicate how proud of them I was without crying. J was geeking out and the kids were beaming with pride.
It was time for round 2 of presentations. This time around though, the reticence was gone. Their experiment was on its way to space. THEIR experiment was on its way to space, and people needed to know the details. The kids rose to the occasion and they were scientists sharing their research! Parents dragged their kids to ours to ask questions. These were role models that their children needed to learn from. The goofy answers and kazoo tunes J and I grew frustrated with during rehearsal were long gone. J and I looked at each other and simply nodded to acknowledge our mutual pride and love for these little scientists.
The time came to wrap up and head back to enjoy the Kennedy Space Center as a regular visit, but the kids had one important question: “Can we have our kazoos now?” And just like that, we went back to being a family on vacation.
Thank you to everyone who made this experience possible. Thank you to everyone who supported and loved these young scientists. (I’m including J here). And of course, thank you to J for loving and believing in these kids so much, that 4 of them dared live up to your perception of them.