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Alton Central teacher attends space shuttle launch

ALTON CENTRAL SCHOOL Science teacher Derek Pappaceno recently enjoyed an honor rarely given to a civilian — a front-row seat to the launch of the space shuttle Atlantis. Brendan Berube. (click for larger version)
December 08, 2009
ALTON — The name "Rocket Man" has taken some getting used to for Alton Central School teacher Derek Pappaceno.

Since his return a few weeks ago from an unexpected trip to the Kennedy Space Center for NASA's latest space shuttle launch, the fifth grade Science teacher has become something of a celebrity at the school, earning the respect and admiration of his students and shouts of 'Hey, Rocket Man!' or 'Hey, Space Man!' from his colleagues.

The experience has been a surreal but gratifying one, Pappaceno said during an interview on Dec. 2, explaining that his journey to the shuttle launch re-ignited his passion for space exploration and re-affirmed his faith in the positive aspects of human nature.

Pappaceno's odyssey began when he and a fellow teacher attended the annual NEA-NH Conference in Bow in October.

As a lifelong astronomy enthusiast who fondly remembers lying on his front lawn as a teenager hoping for a glimpse of Halley's Comet during its last trip through Earth's orbit in 1986, Pappaceno said he was intrigued to find a workshop at the conference on the educational resources available through NASA, and signed up for it.

The workshop, he said, was hosted by Tom Estill, an education outreach coordinator from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland who introduced attendees to the products and services that NASA offers to schools, such as analysis of rocks using the same spectrometer mounted on the Mars Rover, and samples of plants, fruits and vegetables grown in space.

Estill, he said, approached him after the workshop to say how impressed he was with Pappaceno's knowledge of astronomy, and personally offered to help Pappaceno obtain any samples or educational materials he might be interested in.

After returning home, Pappaceno said he e-mailed Estill with some biographical information and further questions about the space program.

A few days later, he explained, one of his classes was interrupted by a call on his classroom phone.

He picked up the phone, he added, to find Estill on the other end of the line, asking whether he would be interested in seeing the upcoming launch of the space shuttle Atlantis.

"I'm standing there with my jaw on the floor, trying to process this," Pappaceno said, adding that it took him several minutes to gather his thoughts and say he would love to see the shuttle launch.

Stating that he would "like to see a teacher go see this," Estill informed Pappaceno that he planned to nominate him for one of the V.I.P. launch passes normally reserved for government officials and NASA contractors.

Having been told by Estill that his chances of being granted a V.I.P. pass were slim, Pappaceno said he didn't give the nomination much thought until a package from NASA marked 'Official Business' arrived at his house two weeks later.

Thinking that the package would contain a letter informing him that NASA had considered but rejected his nomination, Pappaceno said he opened it and found, instead, an invitation to the Nov. 16 launch.

"I felt like I got a golden ticket," he said, likening his reaction to that of the characters in Roald Dahl's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" who receive tickets to the re-opening of the mysterious building.

Luck, he said, continued to play a role in his journey to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida when he landed in Washington, D.C. the morning of the launch only to be told that his connecting flight to Orlando was three hours behind schedule.

When he explained where he was going and why to the clerk at the ticket counter, he said, she told him "I'm going to get you there" and freed up a first-class seat for him on an earlier flight that had already been fully booked.

Despite the best efforts of the airline clerk and a car rental clerk who offered to help him save time by pre-paying all tolls between Orlando and the space center, Pappaceno said he arrived at Kennedy just minutes too late for the pre-launch press conference with Atlantis' flight crew, which he was hoping to attend.

"That was so heart-wrenching," he said, adding that fellow V.I.P. pass-holders who attended the press conference told him later that it was an "emotional" and "motivational" experience.

Pappaceno was, however, able to take part in a "close-up" tour of both the shuttle itself and the launching pad, and said he enjoyed exploring the space center's many exhibits.

"I was so eager to see everything, I didn't eat until about eight o'clock at night," he said, adding that he took more than 300 photos and recorded two hours of video, including footage of the launch itself, which he shared with his students.

"I learned a lot of stuff there that you're not going to get from a text book," he said, explaining that one of the most fascinating aspects of his visit was meeting an American astronaut who recently returned from the International Space Station and shared humorous accounts of how difficult it can be for an astronaut to re-adjust to gravity.

The astronaut, he said, explained that after returning from missions, he would sometimes let go of a pen or even a bag of groceries in mid-air, expecting it to float, only to see it fall to the ground.

Pappaceno also learned during his visit to the space center that astronauts design their own mission patches.

The patch worn by Atlantis' six crewmembers, he said, depicts the shuttle itself leaving earth, surrounded by 13 stars representing their 13 children.

Describing the launch itself as "one of the most memorable things I've ever experienced," Pappaceno said he would defy anyone skeptical of the need for further space exploration not to pull out their checkbook after seeing a successful launch first-hand.

"I couldn't believe it," he said, explaining that just sitting in the stands alongside prominent businessmen, former astronauts, and friends and family of Atlantis' crew members, watching one of the last launches before NASA closes down its shuttle program next year, was "pretty special."

"It brought tears to my eyes," he said, adding that "you feel it in your chest" when a shuttle roars off into the atmosphere.

Voicing his personal thanks to Estill, who he said was the "main reason I got to go," Pappaceno said Estill was just as excited as he was to hear the news that he received a V.I.P. pass.

"This guy went nuts when I told him I got the invite," he said, explaining that Estill likened the invitation to "opening a door with NASA" that could give Alton Central an edge when applying for grants offered by the agency.

"The kids can't believe I went," he said, explaining that his students were "really excited" to see the information he brought back from the space center, and the video he took of the shuttle launch.

Seeing an event like that through the eyes of someone they know helps to make it "a lot more concrete" for them, he explained, adding that he planned to use his newfound relationship with NASA to bolster his efforts in the classroom.

From Estill's willingness to go out on a limb by nominating him for a launch pass to the help he received along the way from the sales clerks for the airline and the car rental service, Pappaceno said the experience "re-affirmed to me that there are so many good people out there."

Asked whether he would ever consider a trip to the stars himself, Pappaceno smiled as he answered, with no hesitation, "I'd take that shuttle ride in a heart beat."

Brendan Berube can be reached at 569-3126 or bberube@salmonpress.com

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