TEXAS CITY — When Apollo 13 Flight Director Gene Kranz first got into the space industry, technology was nowhere near what we have today. In fact, the term “computers” had a different meaning during the days of the Mercury space missions.
Given the renewed emphasis in schools across the nation on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math programs, the man who coined the phrase, “Failure is not an option,” is encouraged by what STEM programs and the inspiration education provides.
Kranz was the keynote speaker at Monday’s convocation ceremony for the Texas City school district. Fitting, since the school district’s theme for the year is Mission: Success. It’s football team even adopted the “Losing is not an option,” rally cry for the 2013 season.
There to inspire teachers who Kranz said “are preparing the next generation of space explorers,” he compared the science and technology training and equipment available during his initial years in the space program to what is available today especially in the field of STEM education.
Back then, computers weren’t equipment on a desk.
“Trajectory design (for the Mercury missions) was done by about 100 women, they were all mathematicians and we called these women ‘computers,’” Kranz, 80, told the teachers and staff of the Texas City school district. “Computers were people in the early days of (human space flight).”
Eventually, after figuring out that 100 people with adding machines wasn’t the best way to figure a space capsule’s trajectory, NASA acquired computers, “that were as big as a house,” to help get the first men to the moon and back.
Kranz, who was a flight director for 33 NASA space missions, including the near-disaster-turned-engineering-miracle-mission of Apollo 13, credited the education he got from people such as space exploration pioneer Christopher Columbus Kraft, his experience as a fighter pilot, his grade school teachers and the hands-on work experience gained to meet the challenge made by President John F. Kennedy to land a man on the moon.
Soon, Texas City students will get their own hands-on and interactive science, technology, engineering and math education. Deborah Laine, head of the Texas City ISD Foundation for the Future, announced a $201,559 grant from Valero to create a STEM SmartLab at Blocker Middle School, when the new campus opens next year.
The SmartLab will offer about 350 students “hands on activities and experiments,” as part of an expanded STEM curriculum, Superintendent Cynthia Lusignolo said.
It won’t be the normal classroom experience either.
“The teacher will be the facilitator,” Lusignolo said. “The teacher won’t be giving the answers. The question will be asked and the students, working as a team, will have to try and find the answer.”
Students also will learn to build portfolios of their work and how to make presentations of their projects.
“This is about offering a real-world experience — just as if they are in the workplace,” Lusignolo said.
Texas City will launch the program next year, and Laine hopes to get another $300,000 to fund a lab at the high school.
Lusignolo said officials from the various petrochemical facilities in Texas City reviewed the program and visited labs in San Antonio and New Mexico with Texas City school officials.
Texas City’s STEM expansion follows the Ball High Preparatory T-STEM program in the Galveston school district, the Renaissance STEM Academy in La Marque and the aggressive STEM programs that partner with NASA at the Clear Creek schools.
Kranz, who pays tribute to the educators in his life with commemorative bricks in their honor outside of Space Center Houston, said he is encouraged by the newfound emphasis on STEM education across the nation. The key, he said, is to have people much like the engineers and flight directors he worked with during the early days of manned space flight.
“It’s really a question now, I think for the schools, (is how to) step up and having the laboratories and the teachers,” he said. “It’s one thing to have the lab, but you need the people who are capable of basically inspiring the young people in the labs.”