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Local students witness NASA launch

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LAKE COUNTY — Kids of the Ronan Boys and Girls Club got the opportunity of a lifetime on Oct. 5-9 as they were invited to Florida to witness a NASA rocket launch in person. 

A new program partnered with NASA and funded by the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics’ (AIAA), “Students To Launch” reached out to the spectrUM Discovery Area with the University of Montana back in July. 

According to the spectrUM Discovery Area Director Jessie Herbert-Meny, the hands-on science center in Missoula had applied for a grant that allowed them to become a NASA Community Anchor this last year to build upon NASA’s resources and help share them with the people of Montana. As Students To Launch is still in its first year, it used the list of approximately 20 Community Anchors to choose who to begin working with. SpectrUM ended up one of the first sites they reached out to.

Herbert-Meny said they were offered the opportunity to participate in a rocket launching activity that would lead to some kids getting the chance to go see an actual rocket launch. They responded with an enthusiastic yes. From there, spectrUM reached out to their partners at the Boys and Girls Club of the Flathead Reservation to find interested kids and Herbert-Meny said it just grew from there. 

Students To Launch initially offered the funding to bring 30 kids, but said 40 could come down, so S&K Technologies offered to fund the additional 10 kids. However, when 48 kids at the club showed interest in going and had their parents’ permission, organizers reached back out to Students to Launch to see if that was a possibility. They agreed, and then offered to fund the entire 48 after all. 

“It took a ton of people to make it happen,” said Director of Operations of the Boys & Girls Club of the Flathead Reservation Amy Vaughan. “S&K Technologies got involved and helped us pay for the charter, obviously the relationship with spectrUM, the schools allowing the kids to be gone … It was just amazing all the way around.”

“We’re all a little in shock I think,” Herbert-Meny commented. “We moved quickly and thankfully because of our relationship with the Boys and Girls Club it was a natural fit. Amy took on so much to coordinate the needs students would have for travelling and we had 10 chaperones … I was so pleased I got to be one. It was just really something else. I’m not sure we’ll ever get an opportunity like that again, but we’d certainly like to. It was really special.”

The group spent five nights in Florida and were able to experience a multitude of unique opportunities. While they weren’t able to see the original Crew 5 launch to the International Space Center due to travel delays caused by the hurricane in Florida, they were still able to see the launch of a Starlink satellite, (after a few false starts), a few nights later. 

According to Vaughan, on Thursday evening the kids were supposed to see the SpaceX launch of the Falcon 9 rocket, but 30 seconds away from launch it was scrubbed. So, they reworked the schedule slightly and planned to see the launch on Friday night instead. However, an hour before it was due to take off, as the kids were loading onto the bus, it was scrubbed again. Finally, everything came together on Saturday night. Herbert-Meny added that not only did they get to see a launch at last, but they also saw the International Space Station fly overhead while they were on the NASA grounds and a barge return carrying a booster from the Crew 5 launch they had originally planned to see. 

“It was just this really interesting moment when we’d had all these changes in our plans … It was pretty wild having all of those things come together like that,” Herbert-Meny said. 

The kids also ended up the very first Students To Launch group to actually get to see a rocket launch. Four other groups from regions closer to the center have gone to see launches as well, but none of them ended up seeing a launch due to the unpredictable nature of the scheduling. 

“We were the largest group, the group that travelled the furthest, and the first to actually get to see a launch during that program,” Herbert-Meny laughed. “It was just really spectacular.” 

In addition to witnessing a rocket launch, students also got to experience behind-the-scenes tours of the Kennedy Space Center, go onto a simulation of a rocket launch, go into the NASA press room and bull pen, do hands on activities addressing real world issues such as making astro socks – socks designed to protect astronauts’ feet in microgravity - and have dinner with astronaut Winston Scott, a former Boys and Girls Club kid himself. 

“For all (the kids), there was some part of it that was just truly unbelievable,” Vaughan said. 

“I think my favorite part was meeting the astronaut. It felt kind of cool that he could tell me all about space and he could tell me his experiences up there,” said Adin Hunt, a Polson Middle School eighth grader who attended. “It felt super cool learning all about how humanity got into space and how everything ended up being the way it was.” 

“My favorite thing was definitely the Kennedy Space Center. I liked it a lot because I got to see different things and learn different things,” stated Ronan Middle School sixth grader Kobe Stevens. “Something I think about still is Nicole Mann, because she was the first (female) Native American to go to space, which is really interesting to me.”

Additionally, some of the students were interviewed by NASA TV and allowed to ask questions directly for Commander Nicole Mann, the first female Native American to go to space. Mann, part of the Crew 5 launch group the kids were initially going to see, is now on the International Space Station. SpectrUM is working to possibly find a time for the kids to connect with her live while she’s in space. 

SpectrUM will be working to bring additional NASA activities to the Flathead Reservation, according to Herbert-Meny, as well as opportunities at the University of Montana and Salish Kootenai College. “We want to continue to build upon this experience to excite kids about careers in STEM,” she stated. 

“One of the take homes was even if you’re a communications person or you really like plants, you have a really high likelihood of, in your lifetime, working for some sort of STEM-based organization,” Vaughan agreed. “Even if you’re in their marketing department, it’s still STEM related. So (we’re) trying to impress upon the kids how important this concept is overall for their life.”

SpectrUM will be holding their Big Night fundraiser on Nov. 4 at the Missoula Public Library with both live and silent auctions. The silent auction is accessible online even to those not present at the event. “It funds the work that we put in to build the relationships like we have with the Boys and Girls Club,” Herbert-Meny explained. “Without that relationship, this wouldn’t have been as successful as it was.” 

Visit spectrUM online at… or the Boys and Girls Club at: to learn more about upcoming opportunities or to get involved and support local students. 

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