Cover Photo: Terrell Manasco
NASA Space Camp Photos courtesy of Stephanie Trice
It is the summer of 2016. While most Americans are tanning at the beach, barbecuing, or otherwise going about their daily lives, Lunar Mission Specialist Stephanie Trice is hovering hundreds of miles above the Earth. Her current task involves repairing blown fuses and replacing windows of a damaged lunar module. Tethered by a long cable attached to the shuttle Columbus, her tiny white-suited figure floats weightlessly in space as NASA Mission Control guides her via headset through the various steps to repair the module. The view over her shoulder is as if some gigantic hand has punched hundreds of pinholes through a vast black velvet blanket, revealing infinite rows of twinkling Christmas lights on the other side. With only a few repairs left, the tension begins to mount when Stephanie is unable to locate something called an L-7 switch on the module. Her heart racing, she searches again and again but it’s no use. Frustrated, she reluctantly notifies Mission Control there is no switch. Then, in her earpiece, she hears a faint hiss of static, followed by seven words no astronaut wants to hear:
“You have four minutes of oxygen remaining.”
“Immediately without thinking I go (inhales sharply),” Stephanie giggles, sitting at a rear table inside her classroom at T.R. Simmons School, where she has taught fourth grade for the past four years. Fortunately the “mission” was only a simulation. In reality, Stephanie was actually inside a huge warehouse-size room at Space Camp, at the Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, suspended in the air by bungee-type cords attached to a harness. “It really is awesome,” she says. “It’s not real but it is so intense, and Mission Control is watching you. I really learned a lot about myself and how I handle pressure. I would probably not make the best astronaut.”
Stephanie grew up in Jasper, where her parents owned two businesses. Although she was a good student at Memorial Park, and later Walker High School, Stephanie admits being uncomfortable if the teacher asked her a question in class. “I was very shy. I did not have the self- confidence to take chances and try things that were hard. I didn’t believe in myself,” she says.
Her retreat, her refuge from her shyness, was found in the land of books. “I was always a reader,” Stephanie says. “I read anything and everything from science fiction to nonfiction. I read books about space and astronauts. In elementary school I liked the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. I was the kid who was grounded from reading as punishment.”
In 1994, Stephanie enrolled at Walker College, and later UAB, where she graduated with degrees in elementary and special education. “My mother said I was always teaching my dolls,” Stephanie laughs. “But I don’t know that I even knew what I was going to do until probably high school.”
Stephanie began her career at Cordova High School. From there she taught special education at Lupton and was a reading coach for the Alabama Reading Initiative. She then taught kindergarten at Oakman before coming to T.R. Simmons in 2012. “This is my eighteenth year of teaching and I still do not regret it,” Stephanie says. “I had awesome teachers, like my kindergarten teacher, Betty Lovett. I had great role models.”
So how does a fourth grade teacher from Jasper end up training for missions at Space Camp? “I was teaching one afternoon and Mr. Allen walked in and said, ‘Mrs. Trice, would you like to go to Space Camp?’” Stephanie says. Although the idea intrigued her, the $949 fee was a bit steep. “My first reaction was, ‘Yes, but I can’t afford to go to Space Camp.’ Fortunately, a program called Space Camp for Educators, paid for by the Alabama legislature, provides for each district to send one teacher every year. That has been a lifelong dream, ever since elementary school. I’m a kid of the eighties—of course I wanted to go to Space Camp! Then I realized, I probably better mention this to my husband before volunteering to go away for a week. Of course he said yes.”
A few weeks later, Stephanie arrived at the Huntsville Space and Rocket Center and was given a backpack, flight suit, and sent to her dorm. “You’re on a team of twelve people, and it was a very diverse group,” she says.
Although “camp” may sound like a vacation, Stephanie says there was no time to relax. “You are in training from 7 a.m until around 7 or 7:30 at night, so it was intense,” she says. “There is no down time. We did missions, like the Space Shot, the Centrifuge, and the 1/6 Gravity simulation, which is like moon gravity. You’re in this harness on these bungee cords. They are the coolest things but walking in them is harder than it looks. You almost have to bunny hop. It’s like Baywatch, in slow motion. Just one hop and you go flying in the air. The missions are simulated, but it’s amazing how realistic it is.”
But not all of the training was physical, and her group even got to meet a real astronaut. “Robert L. ‘Hoot’ Gibson, actually came and spoke to us,” she says. “There were lots of little sessions where we learned about things like ham radio. We learned about robotics and things like water filtration, because those are things that will be needed for a Mars mission.”
Stephanie says stepping out of her comfort zone has given her a fresh new perspective on teaching in the classroom. “I’ve always believed in hands-on science,” she says. “However, Space Camp changed how I teach, in that now I see the importance of kids actually having time to think it through on their own and come up with their own solutions and have time to learn from each other. They need to be given time to think, not just telling them what to think. They are learning from each other’s mistakes and successes. This isn’t something that one person can do on their own. We’ve got to have all of our brains working together to solve the problem. These kids are the generation that are gonna be going to Mars.”
Now that she’s lived out a childhood dream, Stephanie says she highly recommends going to Space Camp. “It absolutely ranks in my top list of events of a lifetime,” she says without hesitation. “Is it really worth the almost a thousand dollar price tag? Yes, it is worth it! It is team building, it is self-confidence…the amount of learning that you get in that six days is just incomparable.”
Had she been offered this opportunity in school, Stephanie believes her shyness would have been a roadblock. “Space Camp is something I would have loved to do, but I would have never been brave enough to do it when I was in elementary or middle school,” she says. ”Now I really work to make sure I encourage my students and my own children, Lily and Charlotte, to step out of their comfort zones and do things that scare them a little. It is good to try new things. It is the only way to continue growing. My grandmother, who is in her eighties, has always said, ‘You are never to old to learn something new,’ and it is a philosophy she lives, and I hope I always do too.”
More recently, Stephanie was chosen as the 2016-2017 Teacher of the Year for T.R. Simmons School. “This has been the year of a lifetime with Teacher of the Year and Space Camp,” she says. “I like my job. I can’t imagine anything else. If you told me today, you can’t teach, you’ve gotta do something else, I don’t know what else I’d do.”
Stephanie never found that mysterious L-7 switch on the lunar module, but there may be a good reason. “They said it was a new module and they think it may have been a mistake,” she says. “Of course, I still want to go back and look.”
Perhaps one day she can be an astronaut and still teach.
Hoot Gibson has to retire eventually. 78