Former teacher helps students explore space, the final frontier


As Ronald P. Ernst walked through the halls at Freedom Elementary School, smiling children boldly asked, "Can I push your button?"

When touched, the Star Trek communicator pinned to his shirt gave off a shrill beep.

"I talk to Captain Sulu on this," he said with a smile.

The metal pin, a memento from the long-running science fiction television series, attracted as much attention Monday as the real things: models of space shuttles, ships and capsules that Mr. Ernst, a former science teacher, displayed in the gymnasium.

One of four aerospace education specialists with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Mr. Ernst travels to schools in 11 states to show off his space memorabilia. He also steps into a model space suit that looks like the 20 the NASA astronauts wear.

The cost and weight of an authentic suit prevent him from taking the real thing on the road, though.

"There are only 20 suits, and the astronauts need them all," he said. "Each one weighs 300 pounds and costs $1 million. I would need an armed guard if I left that kind of equipment in my van."

The popular free presentation, complete with props, has a two-year waiting list of schools eager to hear about exploring the final frontier.

"The NASA program is about more than just going into space," he tells the children. "It's a learning project which benefits the environment, aviation, medicine and more."

After his one-man show, he meets with smaller student groups in the classrooms. He fields many familiar questions, including the most often asked: How do astronauts go to the bathroom?

"Just like they do on Earth, only in space they strap in," he answers.

He answers queries on the flight time and distance to the moon, the makeup of planets and how he makes noises that sound "spacey."

Inquiring children also want to know about the Challenger accident, Mr. Ernst said. He patiently details the cause of the explosion that killed seven astronauts in January 1986.

"Astronauts know their job is difficult and dangerous," he said to Freedom's fourth-grade students. "They go into space sitting on equipment with explosive power."

On UFOs, another hot topic, Mr. Ernst said he is skeptical of all the purported sightings.

"UFO simply means something is flying by and you don't know what that something is," he said. "It could be a big bird or a fuzzy bug. It's likethe homework assignment that no one but you can read."

The explanation brought laughter from his young audience.

One child wondered if the moon landings were staged.

"People will believe what they want," he said. "But we have rocks, pictures and people who went to the moon."

He takes each question seriously and replies matter of factly with the right tinge of humor.

"Why is the moon full of craters?"

"It was hit by a lot of meteors millions of years ago," he answered.

Another child asked if there is an even number of miles between planets.

"Space is not like the New Jersey Turnpike," he said. "There are no signs posted. Pilots do get maps and charts, though."

Mr. Ernst said his overriding message is: "Stay in school and become successful."

"Do you need a real good education or just a medium one?" asked a child.

Astronauts need a college degree plus three more years of study, he said, and assured the class that hard work is worthwhile.

"Don't doubt that research and exploration will happen," he said. "Learn to examine and say, 'Yes, it can be done.' If you don't, you'll be like the Flintstones, still in caves."

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