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Helping Kids Reach for the Stars : Youth: Valley sixth-graders get astronaut training designed to instill confidence in navigating society.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At T minus two minutes and holding, the command came from Mission Control.

“All positions are ‘Go’ for launch. Prepare to begin the countdown.”

Inside a million-dollar space shuttle simulator, computer screens flickered. A little girl in the commander’s seat seemed to shrink a little bit more in the cold glow of her instrument panels.

“Roger,” she said.

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Six classmates from Oxnard Street Elementary School in North Hollywood traveled to U.S. Space Camp this month for astronaut training. Their week would be filled with introductory aerodynamics and astronomy and even a visit to an artificial Mars. They would buckle themselves into microgravity chairs and other high-tech contraptions to prepare for their mock shuttle mission.

Just to get here, these children had come farther than miles could measure. They were Latinos, some of whom had not yet mastered English. They came from immigrant families struggling to adapt to a new culture.

“A few of them have never been out of the neighborhood. It’s not a good neighborhood, and their parents are afraid to let them go very far,” said Arlene Delaney, one of several teachers who accompanied the group. “This is a great opportunity for the kids to see that there is something out there besides Vineland Avenue.”

And maybe, Delaney hoped, a week at Space Camp might teach these sixth-graders more than celestial navigation. It might give them the confidence to navigate American society.

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“When given the opportunity,” she said, “these kids really come through.”

But it would not be easy. Space Camp is designed around a series of academic and physical contests culminating with the all-important mission. The North Hollywood kids were paired with four Michigan students, their team pitted against three teams of children from across the nation. Many were honor students. All were white.

The week did not begin smoothly. Laura Blanco, the tentative commander, could only wonder at all the talk of solid rocket boosters and inertial measurement units. Jesus Ruiz, one of two boisterous twins on the trip, stumbled through such terms as “ESS busses” and “fuel cell cryos.” And Martha Sencion’s uncertainty was exacerbated by all those white faces.

“I thought there were going to be more Mexican people, but there are only six of us,” said the 11-year-old girl, speaking in the thick accent of her native Zacoalco de Torres. “It makes me nervous.”

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T Minus 2:00

Seated before a row of computer screens in a mock Mission Control, Flight Director Cynthia Zuniga started the clock.

The mission would be simple. Based on actual NASA procedures, it would include a launch, an orbit, a brief spacewalk and re-entry.

But in the ensuing minutes, Cynthia and Martha, the guidance control officer, would need to fire off dozens of commands. Inside the simulator, dozens of buttons would be punched in response. A stumbled phrase or stutter could throw everyone off schedule. With an adult supervisor looking on, a tardy maneuver could result in penalties or, worse, in “death” for the shuttle crew.

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Under such pressure, Jesus could not locate the auxiliary power unit controls. His eyes searched an ocean of pilot’s instruments. Seated behind him, his twin brother, Miguel, and another classmate, the pudgy, grinning Chris Orantes, began to argue over their headsets.

“Stop it!” barked Kyle Garner, one of the Michigan kids, from his post in the shuttle’s middeck.

He persuaded the crew to skip to the next maneuver while Laura leaned across to help Jesus locate his APU board.

*

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At Oxnard Street Elementary, most of the students are Latino, Vietnamese or Armenian, many immigrants. These kids face a challenge beyond learning English.

“For example, if we as native Californians were dropped in the middle of Inuit country in winter, we would probably just see snow,” said David Ramirez, who heads a center for minority access to education at Cal State Long Beach. “But there are seven different words in Inuit that describe seven different types of snow, and each type presents a different condition or problem.

“If you don’t know the social clues,” he said, “you are totally lost.”

Delaney sees this dynamic every day. A child reading a simple word problem may be confused by a reference to hang gliding. “Hang gliding?” the teacher says. “They come from some tiny Armenian village. They don’t know what that is.” History and social studies lessons may require a familiarity with cultural phenomena as current as television and as ingrained as Grimm’s fairy tales.

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“You don’t learn everything from textbooks,” said J. L. Fortson, a multicultural education specialist at Pepperdine University. “You have to have a connection to the outside world.”

The principal at Oxnard Street Elementary knows the truth of this. Having left Costa Rica at 9 years old, Alvaro Cortes respects his students’ heritages but insists upon giving them a crash course in mainstream Americana.

“In order to compete, these kids have to have experiences,” Cortes said. “We look for any little thing to give them experience.”

Such as field trips to museums and the beach. And a curriculum that includes everything from fairy tales to lectures on air travel for kids who have never been to an airport. Two of the six who went to Space Camp, for example, had never flown before.

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T Minus 1:30

Again, Jesus hit a snag. He could not get the fuel cells started. His cry of exasperation threw the cockpit into chaos, seconds ticking away, voices Ping-Ponging off each other.

“Flight director? Flight director?”

“Wait. I’m checking.”

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“It’s going to take off without us.”

Megan, another Michigan kid, spoke quietly but urgently from her Mission Control post.

“You guys, we’re really behind.”

T Minus :20

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The fuel cells finally started, leaving Martha just enough time to rush through the countdown, skipping from “7" directly to “Lift off!”

In the seconds that followed, Laura attempted a roll maneuver--while the simulator remained stationary, the panorama on their windshields shifted, telling her that the move was successful. Jesus then throttled down to 65% power to prevent vibration damage. The OMS engines fired, propelling the ship into orbit.

Now the kids could relax. Their mission was back on schedule and would continue smoothly for 10 merciful minutes. Just enough time for the adult supervisor to enter a glitch into the computers.

*

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Long before the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was formed, test pilots at Edwards Air Force Base knew they needed funding for bigger, faster craft. They used to say: “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.”

The students at Oxnard Street Elementary face a similar dilemma. The extra education they need requires money, and that requires inventiveness.

Elizabeth Teicher and Lourdes Knapp, teachers at the school, recently persuaded a few comedians to perform a benefit show at a Valley nightclub, with the proceeds paying for microscopes. Teicher also got the manager of her favorite restaurant to teach etiquette to her kindergartners. He brought plenty of Italian food, which made the class laugh because, in Spanish, pasta means “toothpaste.”

In an adjacent classroom, Delaney teaches grammar by having her students enter essay contests. For art class, they create entries for drawing and coloring contests. Thus her students learn to use their talents to win prizes and scholarships.

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The Space Camp trip represented a sparkling example. Two years ago, Teicher heard about a birthday party for King Kong at nearby Universal Studios. She called to ask if her students could have some leftover cake. The studio had been looking to adopt a local school and had already heard of Oxnard Street Elementary’s reputation for seeking community partnerships.

“Starting with the principal and down through the teachers, they treat it as more than a job,” said Scott Nastaja, a senior vice president at the studio.

So, last July, Universal invited the school to compete in a model rocket contest to promote the film “Apollo 13.” A Rocketdyne engineer volunteered to help build the rockets. Each member of the winning team received air fare to Huntsville and $500 for Space Camp tuition.

T Plus 11:00

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Warning lights flashed in Mission Control. A fuel cell had failed. The rapid-fire chattering resumed, team members searching for a remedy. Amid the technical jargon, a quick “Que paso?” slipped in.

T Plus 20:00

Jesus found a solution, punching a series of buttons to restart the fuel cell. But the toughest part of the mission lay ahead as Miguel and Chris, the payload specialists, pulled on spacesuits. Leaving the shuttle, they strapped themselves into a pair of tall chairs that hovered on air, a fraction of an inch above the floor, simulating weightlessness. The pair had only a few minutes to complete the task of screwing together a metal framework and attaching it to a satellite.

Their cumbersome suits slowed the work. This portion of the mission often exceeds schedule. Because there are stiff penalties for late re-entry, some teams have been known to give up on their specialists and return minus two passengers.

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Sure enough, as Miguel and Chris ran late, Kyle lost his cool.

“Just go. Leave them behind.”

This time, Laura provided the calming influence. From her commander’s seat, she said: “We can’t go. They’ll die.”

*

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A monstrous Saturn V rocket and a full-scale test shuttle adorn the grounds of Space Camp. Students come here year-round to be immersed in the sights, sounds and jargon of the space program. Freeze-dried food is served in the cafeteria. The dormitory looks like a space station with its sick bay and restrooms called “Waste Management” facilities. At the training center, which features some of the same equipment NASA uses to train its astronauts, the North Hollywood kids fought to keep up with their Michigan teammates.

“Yuppified. Very businesslike,” said David Garner, a clinical psychologist who chaperoned the group that included his son, Kyle. “The parents are professors at Michigan State University.”

Early in the week, these kids--Kyle, Megan, Ben Megan and Scott Ehlers--were keen to compete against the other teams. Their enthusiasm turned to frustration as they watched their Latino teammates struggle.

“During the practices for the mission, they pronounce words wrong and it takes longer,” Megan said. “It’s stressful.”

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Neither Laura nor Jesus own home computers, so they lacked a deft touch with their joysticks. They and their classmates also fell behind in quizzes. The others had arrived with a considerable knowledge of astronomy and space program history, answering questions aggressively and openly deriding incorrect guesses.

“This is dumb,” Miguel said later, disheartened. “I thought we were going to play games.”

As it turned out, games eventually brought the kids together. Strapped into dangling “moonwalker” chairs, they all giggled. Tossed into a pool for water survival training, they splashed and wrestled.

“They finally realized there isn’t so much of a difference,” said Knapp, who also made the trip. “They’re all kids and they all think alike.”

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Growing more comfortable, her students began to display a startling tenacity. Laura and Cynthia quietly took command of mission practices. Miguel and Chris, the class clowns, bent over their workbooks in stern concentration. Even Martha began to earn respect.

“They’re just learning how to speak English,” Kyle said. “I can’t imagine what it would be like if I was trying to do all this in another language.”

T Plus 28:00

Miguel and Chris scrambled back from their spacewalk amid shouts of “Come on” and “Let’s go.” There was just enough time for Laura to fire the OMS engines for a de-orbit burn.

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L Minus 5:00

Because of the delay, the team had to skip several nonessential items in the landing sequence. They would surely be penalized. “That’s bad,” Ben groaned from Mission Control.

Jesus, meanwhile, executed an S-turn with the dreaded joystick. The shuttle came into view on Mission Control screens now, only seconds from touchdown. Megan noticed that the landing gear was still up. She informed Laura, then sighed.

“That was close.”

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*

Only two of the four teams would ultimately land their shuttles safely--and with everyone aboard. Although the Oxnard Street students and their teammates would not win the award for best mission, they would be in contention. Even the hard-driven Kyle appeared satisfied. On graduation day, team members signed each other’s caps and posed for snapshots.

“They came through like champs,” Knapp beamed. “This is an ideal experience for our type of kids. They learned that it’s not so scary out there.”

There is hope that one of them might return to North Hollywood with a burning desire to become an astronaut or aerospace engineer. In fact, since the contest at Universal, Miguel has been reading books about space exploration and Chris has transferred to a nearby science and mathematics magnet school.

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At the very least, the children’s confidence soared every bit as high as their make-believe space mission.

For Martha, the turning point came during the water survival training. After she and the other girls lost a paddling race to the boys, she had a memorable talk with Kyle.

“He shook my hand and told me it wasn’t so bad that we didn’t win because at least we tried,” she recalled. “He told me, ‘Congratulations.’ ”

L Minus 0:00

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The shuttle touched down. There had been several critical missteps, but everyone returned safely. Beneath their caps, sweaty hair and wide smiles.

Jesus pointed at Chris and Miguel, who had come within seconds of being stranded in outer space.

“You guys are stoked,” the pilot told his specialists. “We could have left you up there.”

“No,” Laura interrupted, seeming larger after climbing out of the commander’s seat. “We wouldn’t do that.”

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