By Pete Temple, Express Sports Editor
Robyn Ponder’s first experience as a space shuttle commander didn’t quite go as planned.
“I landed in the Everglades, so I missed the runway,” Ponder said with a laugh. “I had to push all these buttons, which is really overwhelming. But I didn’t crash. We were safe. It was my first time, so they said it was pretty good.”
The landing was a simulation, part of a five-day Space Camp she attended at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala.
Ponder, a third-grade teacher at Carpenter Elementary, was one of four Iowa educators selected to participate in the camp, which was held July 30-Aug. 3.
The teachers were sent courtesy of Rockwell Collins of Cedar Rapids, part of the company’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education program.
Ponder received a school-wide e-mail about the program last fall, decided to apply, and was informed over spring break that she had been selected, along with three teachers from Cedar Rapids.
“We teach a space unit, and we just started teaching it a couple years ago,” Ponder explained. “So I wanted some new resources and information.”
The camp took place from 7:30 a.m. until about 8 or 8:30 p.m. each day.
“It was intense, but it was really good,” she said.
About 50 educators were involved, divided into four groups. Ponder’s group included 11 teachers and a team leader. Two of the teachers were from South Korea; others were from states spanning from Nevada to Maryland.
Participants did team-building activities, and learned classroom activities they could bring back, such as building rockets out of plastic, cardboard or plastic bottles.
They also did simulations, which is how Ponder wound up as commander of a Space Shuttle mission, doing a simulated landing. During that mission, Ponder was seen on a Mission Control TV monitor, operating the Shuttle.
In another mission, she worked on the International Space Station, where she monitored plants that grow in the station, providing food for astronauts.
“We had to measure the plants, see the light exposure, and count the produce that was on each plant,” Ponder recalled.
She also got to do a simulated space walk, being hung from the ceiling by a harness to simulate being in space.
“I was repairing the tile on the outside of the International Space Station and the Space Shuttle,” she said.
The educators got to see a lot of artifacts, including spacesuits, gloves and boots that had been used by astronauts on real space missions. The center has the largest collection of space artifacts in the world.
Astronaut Story Musgrave came and spoke with the group, and the members also heard from people who worked on the recent Rover mission to Mars.
There were also helicopter landings, zip-lining and other activities. Ponder even got to keep the blue spacesuit she wore – complete with her name sewn on. It now hangs in her classroom.
“It was an amazing experience. It is the best professional experience I’ve had,” Ponder said. “It was also a good personal experience. I met a lot of really neat people, from around the world and around the country. They’re all educators too.
“I learned so much about space that I didn’t know before, which helps me as a teacher. The more I know, the more I can help my kids. They gave out a lot of resources that I can use in the classroom.”
Ponder recently shared her experiences with Carpenter staff as part of the school’s welcome-back event, and will be working with other teachers to prepare the space unit for students.
As a bonus, the Ponder family has relatives living in Orange Beach, Ala., so Robyn got to spend some time on the beach after the camp ended, joining husband Travis, and their sons Dylan, age 8; and Ethan, 6.
“I was lucky to have it all fall into place,” she said.
PHOTO: Robyn Ponder of Monticello, third grade teacher at Carpenter School, recently returned from Space Camp in Alabama. Among other things, Ponder served as commander for a simulated Space Shuttle flight. (Photo submitted)