An Essay on the Website of
the Red Dirt Writers Society

NASA Education on the Road 
by Gordon Eskridge (Apr 2009)


On January 15, 1985, Charles Anderson and I started our careers as Aerospace Education Specialists by traveling to Kansas from Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Oklahoma. We were going to observe how the NASA school program was to be presented. We were traveling in a United States Government van, with “NASA” (National Aeronautics and Space) in bold lettering on all sides of the van. The interior of the van had been modified to carry a variety of educational equipment essential for school programs and personal equipment necessary to stay on the road for three to five weeks at a time.

It was six a.m., and we were to be at the school before eight A.M. Charles and I were driving the NASA van behind a car which was driven by Dr. Nelson Earlick, the assistant director of our group of aerospace specialists. We were headed toward our first elementary school program in southeast Kansas to learn how the school program was to be presented. The school was located in the center of a small town and was built by the WPA (Works Progress Association). The school was made of stone and built to last.  

The NASA van was equipped for living and working on the road.  It was one of the few Government vans that had a tape player built into the radio. Often where we traveled there was little choice as to what could be received on the radio in either the F.M. or A.M. radio bands. So, taped stories or music were often kept in the van. There was a hanging clothes closet, two large cabinets, and storage bins built into the wall that divides the front of the van from the main storage area in the back of the van. A center console was built between the seats with storage for the four-page Government reports, school, travel, mileage and expense reports as well as extra black ink pens, pictures of astronauts, paper punch, stapler, blank paper, and other traveling office needs.

There was a Civil Broadcast Radio, remote mike, and speaker. There were two cup holders built into the center console also. Right behind the driver’s seat, there was a small wooden cabinet with a door.  Behind the door was a safe bolted to the van floor and in this safe was a Lucite disk imbedded with chips of lunar rocks.

The backend of the van was modified with shelves and storage bins to hold the model spacesuit and a mixture of models including the space station, space transportation system, satellites, airplanes, and the NASA family of rockets.  The collection also included a satellite information collector demonstrator, space food, and flight food tray and other space artifacts. The audio-visual equipment included a sound system, 16-mm projector, 35-mm slide projector and projection screen. Other visual aids included 30 by 40-inch photos of the sun, planets, moons and other space objects.

This was only one of thirty vans modified at Stillwater by the Asphalt Astronauts (nickname of the Aerospace Education Specialists) and the Assistant Director of the Aerospace Education Services Program headquartered at Oklahoma State University. When newly purchased, these vans held the $150,000 NASA presentation inventory and were customized for security and convenience in the brown building on the west edge of Stillwater.

Charles and I were there to help unload the van and setup the auditorium program. We placed the three eight-foot long folding tables end-to-end on the stage and covered them with long, blue tablecloths. Next to be set up was the portable sound system and remote FM mike that Dr. Nelson would wear during the program. Next we placed the models on a table, with some raised up on differing heights by the use of empty model boxes place under the tablecloth to keep the visual line interesting. We placed the tallest ones on each end of the tables so the eyes of the students would be drawn back to the speaker at the center of the display. Leaning against the front of the tables were the 30 by 40-inch pictures of the solar system in order with the sun on the left and the planet Pluto on the right. The full size model space suit was displayed to the right of the tables by hanging it on the two-wheel dolly we used to move the boxes from the van.

The morning programs would be divided into two different age groups and the length of time the program and the technical level of language used would differ with the age and attention span of the student.

All of the members of AESP were former teachers with at least five years in the classroom and a Bachelors Degree or three years experience in the classroom and a Masters degree. At 9 a.m. a bell rung and the first students started to arrive in the auditorium. They sat on the floor with the younger and shorter children sitting down front. The teachers were sitting at the end of each row and at the back of the room. Charles and I sat at one side and took notes of everything Dr. Nelson said or did during that first half-hour program.

Nelson brought students up from the audience to help with the demonstration parts of the program. The students built paper airplanes to show how well they could follow instructions and make airplanes that would fly. They inflated balloons and launched them complete with countdown from the audience to demonstrate how rockets worked. Nelson continued by stacking two balloons with a paper cup in between each balloon to demonstrate a two-stage rocket. Nelson demonstrated how satellites were kept in space and steered by the use of gyroscopes, using a twist board and a bicycle wheel with extension handles attached to the axel. With the student standing on the twist board and holding the bicycle wheel by the two handles Dr. Earlic started the wheel spinning and had the student tilt the wheel making the student move in opposite direction.

Using the ten “30 x 40”pictures held up for the students to see, Nelson told the students how to name the planets in order out from the sun. To the students he said “My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas”, and had them repeat it back to him. Then Nelson created the most enviable task for one student. This student was brought up on stage and dressed in the mock-up space suit while the presenter told about the composition of the many layers that made up the space suit and how each part of the space suit was used. He explained to the students that the outer layer was for durability and reflection of light and heat rays and was made of a Teflon-coated, woven fiberglass. 

The next several layers were made of a Mylar-coated aluminum foil for more strength and ray reflection. The next layer was a rubberized plastic layer to keep the air in. Another layer was like Long John underwear made of Dacron and cotton to prevent abrasion to the astronauts skin. Next to this layer were miles of flexible tubing used to pass water through to keep the astronaut cool. A knob was located on the work belt to adjust the temperature of the astronaut’s underwear.

Then a diaper was worn to help with emergencies. Dr. Earlic then explained to the students how the many components of the space suit worked together.

Often we got reporters that would stay through the first session in the morning, take a picture of the kid in the spacesuit and leave. Sometimes they stayed all day.

The second program followed much the same routine except for more details about the objects displayed and the technical language used. Each presentation lasted approximately fifty minutes. We then helped Dr. Earlic load the van, and the principal of the school took us all out to eat at the best restaurant in town, the “Hook and Ladder Café,” which is attached to the fire station. The chef cooks for both places.

After lunch we went back to the school and set up a room for the question and answer portion of the school visit. This part of the visit was titled a classroom visit and in fifteen years of doing this job there was never less than three classrooms in the room and more often several more. We spent this time explaining about living and working in space. Eating space food is the third most asked question from the “tube food” for the Mercury astronauts to the “freeze dried foods” of space stations today. We carried samples of each stage of space food evaluation. Sleeping in space is the number two most asked question from sleeping in a chair to the ability to sleep in a sleeping bag up side down. We had a mock-up sleeping bag from the Space Shuttle. The number one asked question is how do you go to the bathroom in space?

The explanation included information from Mercury flights to today on the Space Transportation System. NASA has a slide-show presentation on the bathroom for outer space. We concluded the classroom visit with a short film of the last flight in space.

We normally had two classroom visits and sometimes three. Today, there would be only two because there was a bad snowstorm coming and officials were closing schools early. We also discovered that the next two schools on our schedule were closed for the next two days. So we went home.

At home we had some snow that was gone by Sunday, and we returned to Kansas with a grad student working on his masters at Oklahoma State University as part of the AESP contract.  With NASA you could complete your final year on campus to meet residency requirements and be paid by AESP to complete your Masters or Doctorate Degree.

            Charles and I studied all weekend about the things we had learned on our first school visit. We made notes on three-by-five cards and placed them near the models and attached them to the back of the planet pictures so we could refer to them while we practiced our presentation or if we should be called on to give part of a presentation for real.

            Charles and I met with Phil the grad student from the Kennedy Space Center. We left our cars at the university, one more time, traveling in the blue NASA van again. We were going to a middle school in Wichita, Kansas. We drove to the school following Phil in his car. The program had a few new jokes and some different information, and we jotted them down for later use.  We drove to the motel and spent a quiet night studying and planning for tomorrow. The next day’s high school presentation would give us a sample of the approach given to the high schools.

After the day was over Phil asked us how we felt about doing the school presentations, and I told him I thought we were ready to do it on our own. Charles hit me on the shoulder and said, “No way.” The next school was another elementary presentation and if he made a mistake no one would know. We would still do the classroom visits together and between us should be able to answer the questions. He thought about it and then said, “Okay.” Phil said he would critique the programs, and we could go from there. We said, “Okay.”

After the school program the next day, Phil said that we had done as good a program as he had ever seen. He packed his car and left us the schedule of school presentations.

Site Map

HOME           ShortStories           Essays           Poems         Websites      

Meetings         Comments         ContactUs         Members

This is the website of the Red Dirt Writers Society.
Revised April 2009.