Space Week Excitement

By: Todd Martin
With every whoosh of compressed air, the crowd of students and adult guests gazed upward and cheered as another paper-and-tape rocket hurled into the sky, carried in the gusty wind and bounced to a grassy landing.

The 17th annual Space Week at West Ward Elementary School, culminating Thursday with the rocket launch competition challenged students to look beyond.

Space Shuttle astronaut Don Thomas shared his experience of four Space Shuttle launches, urging students to work hard in school everyday to go as far as life might take them.

In large school assemblies, smaller classroom presentations and visiting patients at Baylor Scott & White McLane Children’s Hospital, the astronaut shared his unique experiences and motivated all who would listen.

Showing photographs from his missions, he shared images of the thin, blue line that is the earth’s atmosphere, a huge swirling hurricane and the top of Mount Everest, all from a vantage point 200 miles above the earth.

“The message is always about sharing the excitement of space exploration,” Thomas said Tuesday between ceremonies honoring students for showing strong character traits.

“It’s a magical world where things float,” the former astronaut said, “but the main message is work hard every day because you never know what will help you in later life. I worked hard and dreamed about becoming an astronaut since I was 6 years old. Never give up.”

Presenting the school’s new Right Stuff awards for showing the trait of tolerance, the visiting astronaut pointed out that on the Shuttle crews, seven peopled lived in close proximity for about two-and-a-half weeks.

Getting along with others with different personalities, he said, is important in the classroom, in the community and in space.


Now 20 years removed from his Shuttle days, Thomas told students he is too old to consider NASA’s next space missions, but they are not.

He explained that the Space Launch System is the current NASA project to get to Mars on a ship called the Orion. That ship may land on the moon, on asteroids and eventually on the Mars landscape.

Showing an artist rendering of astronauts on Mars, he asked elementary students who are those people and then he answered his own question.

“You are the perfect age. I call you the Mars generation. You can be the astronauts and the engineers that get there. That’s why we need you working hard in school every day.”

Exciting students about science is a long tradition at West Ward Elementary that takes on new emphasis the last week in October. This year, the usual cast of experts visited classrooms.


Dan Oates of U.S. Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama assisted the school’s teachers with Space Camp experience in building the first school simulation of the Mission to Mars in the country.

For many years, students performed scripted Shuttle missions. This year’s fifth-graders worked with Oates last spring to write a new script and labored this week to make the plastic-and-pipe sets to carry out the staged mission.

Fifth-graders carried out the missions for younger students and guests, with shows continuing through Friday. Those followed the rocket launch competition and family science night Thursday.

In the competition, the city of Killeen parks and recreation department team won first place with a flight of 13.53 seconds. Second place went to the city’s solid waste department team with a flight of 11:85 seconds. Third place went to the Army team at 11.42 seconds.

Each organization provided mentors to work alongside fifth-graders to design a rocket. The times indicate two flights added together.


The winning team included a parks department supervisor, Esha Atkins, who attended West Ward in third through fifth grade.

“I remember the mission scenarios we did in the gym,” Atkins said. “Space Week is my biggest memory of elementary school. Coming back reminds me how important it is to know about our world and space. It’s amazing that Mrs. (Maureen) Adams is still excited about it,” she said of the school principal.

Fifth-grader Ruby Lujan, part of the winning team said she was thrilled her team’s rocket soared and kept soaring.

“Yes, I was surprised,” she said. “I saw it go and I was about to cry. I’m really happy for my team.” She said the rocket, called the “Green Hornet,” featured a long tube that helped it go far.