By CHRIS HARRIS
It’s usually the students who have an interesting story to share with the class about what they did on their summer vacation.
Pulaski County High School teacher John Franklin, however, may have the best story to tell out of anyone: He got to fly a shuttle to the international space station.
Well, sort of.
Franklin, a physics and math instructor for the county district school, took part in the Honeywell Educators at Space Academy program earlier this month. In the process, he managed to live out the dream of a boy who had always been fascinated by the idea of boldly going into outer space.
“I remember growing up watching the Challenger explosion, and all the space shuttles they show on TV,” he said. “... As a kid growing up in Tennessee, I was always wanting to go to space camp, but it was expensive and I never had the money.”
However, after becoming a teacher at Pulaski County, Franklin ended up taking students to symposiums at the famous Christopher C. Kraft, Jr. Mission Control Center in Houston, Texas, through the NASA Explorers Schools program. That’s when those dreams became something close to reality.
“While down there, officials told me I needed to do the space camp for educators,” he said. Indeed, Franklin applied, and was accepted to take part in the event, June 14-20, at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala., sponsored by leading technology company Honeywell International.
Franklin was one of about 210 teachers present from 42 different states and 27 countries, the only one from Kentucky. He received the opportunity to work with several of the other teachers after they were broken down into teams, which would compete to see which could best complete several key tasks required of real astronauts.
Of course, what Franklin and his fellow educators actually participated in were simulations — they didn’t actually go into space — but the coolness factor of it all was hardly diminished, since they got to engage in the same kind of preparation that real astronauts have before they can go up into the heavens.
One of the things that Franklin got to do was be the crew commander of a replica of the Orion capsule, the future vessel that will send astronauts to the moon, asteroids, and the planet Mars.
“The had a model of the Orion capsule,” said Franklin. “You got inside of it, put on the headphones and talked to mission control. This was a full mock-up of it. I got to sit in the commander’s seat. I had a computer screen in front of me, like what actual astronauts would see. The graphics were set up so I could so just like the regular rocket launch. I had to give commands for take-off.
“Once we got into outer space, I had to dock with the Martian lunar base, pick up a couple of astronauts and drop a couple of them off, then come back to Earth and land in the ocean,” he continued. “It was a three or four simulation. There were different anomalies we had to come up and fix. It was a full-scale simulation, like the real thing.
“It was totally awesome,” he added.
The other mission was a recreation of a previous space shuttle mission to the International Space Station, which currently reside in low Earth orbit after being launched in 1998.
“The shuttle flew up to the dock, and I got in what they call the ‘Snoopy Suit,’ which is what they use to go out on moonwalks,” said Franklin. “I was in a zero-gravity simulator; they used water to balance the weight loss.
“They had the front part of the shuttle,” he added. “You had to dock, build some outside structure, and come back down into the atmosphere at land at the Kennedy Space Center. They added to the simulation by shaking side to side for the landing ... so you not only got the look but the feel of what it’s like the operate one of these machines.”
Franklin enjoyed working with his teammates, even with communication with others from so many different states and nations sometimes proving challenging. His team didn’t win but he feels it was a “great team” nonetheless.
“Working with teachers from India and Bangladesh, there was a communication issue where they didn’t know English that well, or me being from Kentucky having to relate to someone from Washington with a different accent,” he said. “That’s probably the most difficult part when astronauts are actually training — and we did it in a week’s time.”
Among the other exciting things Franklin got to do was build a model rocket to shoot off from Homer Hickam Field — named after the NASA engineer and author of the book “Rocket Boys” (and yes, Franklin got to meet him and have him sign a copy of the book), and dine underneath an actual Saturn 5 rocket.
“It was neat just seeing the history of the place, being right next to an Apollo capsule that’s actually been in space,” he said. “It was like a dream come true.”
There are educational benefits for him to bring back as a teacher — including getting to bring back a rocket project for his class to actually launch, because a Franklin himself put it, what student doesn’t want to launch a rocket?
“It gives a buy-in for students (to do something) with enthusiasm,” he said. “Math is behind in the race (in U.S. education). The whole point was to boost awareness and get involvement. It just opened up resources and demonstrations and things teachers can do to boost the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math)-related field.
“One of the great things was having teachers from around the country because some of them sponsor rocket teams at their high schools,” he added. “It inspired me to try to get a rocket team started (at PCHS).”
It’s not just his students but his own family with whom Franklin sought to share his experience. He said he and his wife and kids vacation every year at the beach near the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
“I drag my kids there ever year to tour the facilities; last year, they got to see the last Atlantis shuttle take off,” he said. “When I was accepted (to the camp), I was like a little kid calling my wife. My six-year-old was actually thinking I was actually going to the moon and wanted me to bring back moon rock candy, and was telling their Sunday School teachers, ‘Daddy’s gone to the moon.’”
Franklin got his start in teaching after working at Lowe’s hardware store, after a friend talked him into it to do something with his love of mathematics. Could he see himself making another career change — this time, to being an astronaut?
“Oh yes, it’s always been a dream,” he said, “... to be a teacher in space, and be on the space station, with a classroom in space. That would be awesome.”
For now, however, he’ll be staying down-to-earth — for the most part.
“The best part of the week was that they gave me my own flight suit,” he said, adding with a laugh, “I’ll be wearing it to school almost every day.”