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Space Race

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

This country’s latest space effort is rocketing along today--powered by a mixture of cocoa, sugar and concentrated milk.

Those are the ingredients of the 32,000 chocolate bars that children at Glassell Park Elementary School sold to send classmates on overnight trips to the U.S. Space Camp in Mountain View.

Their months-long candy blitz helped raise enough cash to pay the way for all 115 fifth-graders to a two-day simulated astronaut training program for children.

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Fifty youngsters spent Tuesday night at the Northern California camp and will return home today. The rest will leave for camp this morning and come back Thursday.

For most, the excursion marks their first night away from home. Not to mention their first airplane trip.

“This is a poor neighborhood. Most children here, for example, are on the free lunch program,” Principal Beatrice LaPisto said. “But these are the brightest, best, most motivated students you’ll find anywhere.”

Fifth-grade outings are a tradition at Glassell Park. But annual trips in the past have been more modest: whale-watching jaunts or camp-outs in the nearby mountains.

LaPisto began mapping out the space trip last fall after learning that the nonprofit U.S. Space Camp Foundation had opened its third children’s education program next to Moffett Field and NASA’s Ames Research Center. Other facilities are in Huntsville, Ala., and Titusville, Fla.

The program utilizes a dozen training simulators resembling those used by astronauts. Students also have a chance to build and launch model rockets and learn about the space shuttle program and future space stations.

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Some worried that the space camp idea was, well, too far out for Glassell Park.

“I had naysayers. Some of my own teachers, in fact. But I never had any doubt we could raise the $24,000 to do it,” LaPisto said Tuesday as the first group boarded buses donated by Foothill Transportation that took them to Burbank Airport.

Nearly all of the school’s 951 students volunteered to hustle candy bars.

The top seller turned out to be someone who is still five years away from his own fifth-grade trip. Kindergartner Roberto Ayala Jr. (with help from Roberto Ayala Sr.) sold more than 2,000 candy bars.

A fifth-grader, Jennifer Renteria, 11, was responsible for selling 45. “My Nana took most of them to work,” she said. “But I bought two of them myself to eat.”

Classmate Nataly Nunez unloaded 11 bars. “This was very important to her. She wanted to see something new,” said Esperanza Leon Nunez, who came Tuesday to see her daughter off.

Parent Julianna Marquez admitted being “a little bit hesitant” about space camp until she learned that her daughter Kimberly’s teacher would be helping chaperon the trip.

Marquez said she trusts Linda Withrow. “Miss Withrow was my third-grade teacher back when I went to this school,” Marquez said.

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Along with candy revenues, profits from a smaller-scale gift wrap sale was also plowed into the trip, according to Mary Davis, assistant principal. So was cash paid by movie crews who this year used the picturesque Spanish-style Glassell Park campus as a film backdrop and $500 contributed by the Los Angeles Unified School District from a federal science education grant.

When it was all tallied, there was enough to cover every student’s air fare--although fifth-grader Andrew Brenes opted to go by ground because of his fear of flying. His father drove him the 400 or so miles to Mountain View early Tuesday and will drive him back tonight, school officials said.

Eleven-year-old Ramon Vallarreal said the trip was particularly important to him. All his life, he said, he’s dreamed of being an astronaut when he grows up.

“I’ll know by the time I get back home whether I like it or not,” Ramon said. “I want to see what it’s like to float around with no gravity.”

He has a backup field in mind in case his space career doesn’t get off the ground.

“I’ll be a baseball player,” he said.

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