Two Adventures in Outer Space Are Heading for the Launching Pad : High-Flying Teachers Vie for a Chance to Take a Giant Leap for Education

Times Staff Writer

La Jolla High School teacher Gloria McMillan, who usually spends her time teaching teen-agers with genius IQs, went to school herself all last week, studying such complicated subjects as how to eat, sleep and use the restroom.

"I'm taking notes like crazy," she said. "And tape-recording, too."

The 41-year-old English instructor was one of 114 anxious teachers from all over the United States who came here to outer space school, vying to be named the first private citizen to ride NASA's space shuttle. McMillan and William M. Dillon, a certified pilot who teaches problem students at Peninsula High School in San Bruno, are the two representatives from California.

The 10 finalists--gleaned from 11,416 applicants--will be announced here this morning after a week of workshops in a Washington hotel. The first American astroteacher will be picked from the 10 finalists after three more weeks of screening.

The classes last week covered topics from cabin living to physics to astronomy to geography to one labeled "Taking a Closer Look at the Extraterrestrials." Those are not friendly little bald guys who call home; they are things like the moon and meteorites.

Three Questions

After President Reagan announced last August that a teacher would be the first private citizen to go into space, applications flooded in, complete with videotapes of the teachers answering three questions posed by NASA. One question, which teachers could prepare in advance, was a two-minute description of the project they proposed to undertake in space. The two impromptu questions were: How will this affect your life, and last but not least, what is your philosophy of life? Teachers had 90 seconds to answer each.

From the thousands of applicants, two teachers were selected from each state, U. S. territory, the Department of Defense overseas schools, Department of State overseas schools and Bureau of Indian Affairs schools.

Much like the Miss America pageant, the 59 men and 55 women lucky enough to get this far had to hope to score high on their interviews here with a judging panel composed of astronauts, politicians, educators, actors, a NASA official and a physicist.

"Yes, I'm nervous," said McMillan, her interview moments away.

"You can feel the competitive electricity radiating," Dillon said.

Talking to a reporter, McMillan volunteered that "the electricity in the air was magnetic, enormous, powerful" after the class viewed the new movie "The Dream Is Alive," filmed by 14 astronauts on board three shuttle flights.

Dillon, who says he is now called "Spaced Out Bill" by his students, was not nervous about his interview, he claimed.

"I feel so qualified, I don't really feel that nervous," said Dillon, 47, who is single and teaches flying and aeronautics in his spare time. He is a founding member of the Bay Area Black Pilots Assn., he said.

Two Goals Set

Growing up poor without a father in Harrisburg, Pa., Dillon, the oldest of six children, set two goals for himself to reach in adulthood.

"One was to be able to drink as much milk as I wanted to," said Dillon, whose family members were restricted to one glass a day, "and No. 2 was to fly."

Dillon was so intrigued by airplanes that he would ride his bike 15 miles to a local dirt strip airport and spend the day watching the few planes take off and land. His childhood love for the whole concept of flight even prompted him to raise roller pigeons.

"I'm surprised at the number of people who don't know what roller pigeons are," Dillon said.

Uh, roller pigeons?

"They are pigeons that you train to roll over in flight," Dillon said. "I raised championship roller pigeons."

One day at the airstrip, young Dillon asked a pilot if he would take him for a ride.

"He said, 'I don't think your kind should be allowed to fly,' " Dillon remembered. "That gave me incentive. I was going to fly, no matter what."

In a Real Spin

Earning $28 at his first job shining shoes at a fair, the 16-year-old Dillon spent $13 of it on his first flying lesson. The instructor, figuring he was nothing but a starry-eyed kid, began the lesson by sending the plane into a spin.

"I said, 'Let's do another one! This is really fun!' " Dillon recalled.

He has been flying ever since and is such a well-read fan of the space shuttle that he found he was "not learning a helluva lot" in the weeklong space school. In fact, he said, he pointed out one teacher's error.

Dillon also has realized his other dream--to be able to afford all the milk he can drink--but he finds that because of his "metabolism," he can only drink "about one glass a day."

The 10 finalists will move on to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where they will undergo more interviews and training, including a ride in the famous "vomit comet," which simulates the dizzying dips, rolls and spins of space flight.

Dillon isn't worried about the vomit comet.

"I feel pretty confident I won't be affected by it," Dillon said. "I've never been motion sick. I've taught aerobatics and fished on the high seas." Dillon said he figured NASA would not choose a teacher who had trouble with motion sickness, increasing his chances all the more.

Ah, but McMillan pointed out that in the classes here she learned that women are less prone to space sickness than men.

"They're not sure if women just don't get sick, or if they do and they don't complain about it because we're used to . . . enduring, " McMillan said. "I didn't have morning sickness with my babies. I have a cast-iron stomach."

McMillan's fascination with flying goes just as far back as Dillon's, when her father would take her for rides in his Piper Cub while her mother, an "airport widow," would wait in the car. McMillan, who also has passed the California bar and is writing a book about Vietnamese refugees, remembers when she was bulletin board monitor in grade school, pinning up articles on Sputnik that gripped her imagination.

"I can remember stretching to put up the pins," she said. "In the same class we were reading 'The Odyssey,' and I connected the adventure of discovery of Ulysses with the space probes."

Hang-Gliding Veteran

At home she has a box of news clippings on the moon walk, and she even tried hang-gliding.

"It's wonderful," she said. "It changes your perspective."

Her perspective on hang-gliding changed soon after, however, when a friend she had talked into trying it broke her kneecap.

"I lost interest," she said, refusing to agree it was dangerous. "And it's expensive on a teacher's salary."

McMillan's husband "is excited about" the possibility of her going into space, she said.

"He says he wouldn't want to go," said McMillan, noting that he didn't even want to go to Europe to go backpacking with her and their two sons.

"He doesn't like to travel," she said. "I love to travel.

'Pioneer Stock'

"I come from pioneer stock. Whitman is my favorite poet, the poet of the pioneers."

In their applications, teachers had to explain what special project they would bring to space.

"I think a teacher in space should teach," McMillan said. So she proposes what she calls an "interactive classroom," teaching class while on board the space shuttle, via satellite, to kids watching on screens down on Earth with telephone hookups to ask questions.

Dillon, who teaches at a continuation school for students who did not succeed at other high schools, chose two projects suggested by his students. He describes his students as "suffering from a lack of self-esteem. They have drug problems, family problems, truancy problems, psychological problems. Some of them think about suicide."

What they have suggested, he said, is observing the swimming habits of goldfish in space, and building two identical jewelry boxes, one on Earth and one in space, to see "what it's like to use a hammer and glue and drive screws in space."

Dillon said it would be a tremendous boost to his students' morale if he and their projects went into space.

"In my culture, athletes and entertainers are the role models. There are not many role models in education," he said. "That's critical. That's why they don't relate to education."

A teacher in space may be a different story. He or she will be the real E.T.: Extraterrestrial Teacher.

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