Young Astronaut’s Day held at Museum of Aviation

Sun News correspondentMay 15, 2013 

WARNER ROBINS -- Saturday at the 24th annual Young Astronaut’s Day at the Museum of Aviation was a family occasion for 10-year-old Zachary Nakoski.

During lunch, Zachary Nakoski hung out with his parents, Michael and Cindy Nakoski.

The elder Nakoskis were at the event manning a U-2 high altitude reconnaissance aircraft display. In particular, the Nakoskis were showing off the high-altitude, full-pressure flight suit worn by U-2 pilots.

Cindy Nakoski, who retired from the Air Force’s U-2 program in June, is an authority on the suit. She told the first- through eighth-graders at the museum the outfit was very much like an astronaut’s.

She explained that even through the suit seemed fairly soft while on the ground, when fully pressurized at high altitudes it felt about like the Diet Coke can she passed around for them to hold.

She also let students sample the same “tube food” pilots eat. It was peach flavored.

For his part, Michael Nikoski, an Air Force master sergeant and U-2 crew chief at Robins Air Force Base, modeled the suit and answered questions.

“Ever been to the moon?” one younger student asked.

Michael Nakoski had to answer no, but did say with the right equipment it would be a great trip.

Aside from spending lunch with his parents, Zachary Nikoski spent the rest of the day going to his choice of Young Astronaut’s Day’s 23 workshops. The sessions carried titles like Play Dough Planets, Stomp Rockets, Slime, Math Mania, Parachutes, Moon Rocks, Engineering and Astro Training.

Zachary said his favorite was called tall towers.

“We learned about ways to use different shapes and materials to make skyscrapers,” he said. “And we made skyscrapers ourselves using marshmallows and steady sticks. Ours was 43 centimeters tall. After we built it, we shook the table to see how sturdy it was. We did lose part of one side wall, but the building stood.”

One of the day’s more challenging workshops used an advanced simulation system to let students become air-traffic controllers bringing in planes at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

“It’s a very authentic program,” said Wayne Carley, who heads the museum’s extensive Mission Quest flight simulation department.

Each participating student sat at their own computer console wearing headsets in a dimly lit control room keeping track of an increasing number of jets coming into the world’s busiest airport. Large screen monitors at the front of the room gave a bigger picture.

Carley said simulated pilots “talked” to the students asking for landing instructions. In turn, students entered instructions back via keyboard.

Carley said the simulator uses real FAA guidelines and gives students a sense of the career field, requiring them to multitask and make quick decisions. He said they also get a feel for the stress of being a controller.

Young Astronaut’s Day is conducted each year by the museum’s education department with particular goals in mind.

“Everything is very interactive and gets the students to use their brains and their hands,” said Melissa Spalding, education department head. “Everything is geared toward teaching and developing interest in science, technology, engineering and math subjects. We want to inspire kids and encourage them to fill STEM jobs in the future.”

Spalding said the summer will be filled with educational events at the museum for old and young, such as summer camps and the Georgia Kid’s STEM Day on July 20. Information on all the education department’s activities is available at the museum’s website, www.museumofaviation.org, by clicking in the education tab.

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