ELLWOOD CITY – Mary Kaye Houk Hagenbuch met her first astronaut when she was a student at Grove City College, and she is still meeting them.
“In the late 1980s, I met Harrison Schmitt, from the last manned Apollo 17 mission to the moon,” the Ellwood City area native said recently. “I was inspired by his account of being tasked to find moon rocks to bring back to earth.”
Schmitt, a geologist turned astronaut, was the first person to speak a Bible verse aloud on the moon. “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence comes my help. My help comes from the Lord, maker of heaven and earth.” Psalm 121.
Schmitt looked up to see to the ghostly hills of the lunar landscape against the black backdrop of space and drove his lunar rover over the next ridge and was delighted to find a nice big pile of moon rocks that everyone back on Earth was so anxiously hoping for.
As a science teacher for 19 years at the Jupiter Christian School in Palm Beach County, Fla., Hagenbuch has been taking her students to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex for field trips and meeting astronauts.
“I finally got to touch one of those moon rocks at the Saturn V Rocket exhibit that Schmitt found,” she said. “My students and I are surprised to see that the rocks are smooth, dark in color, and wonderfully iridescent.”
On March 12, 2020, the last normal day before the lockdown of the schools due to COVID-19, Hagenbuch’s class went on its annual field trip to the Kennedy Space Center.
The tour included an experience of the Apollo 8 firing room that launched the first crewed mission to space, an unveiling of the Atlantis Space Shuttle and a ride on the Space Shuttle Launch simulator.
“We even got to meet Wendy Lawrence, an astronaut who inspired us with stories of her job performing science experiments on the International Space Station,” Hagenbuch said.
“I always look forward to meeting another astronaut and hearing of their accomplishments in space exploration. Some of my favorites have been Jim Lovell and Gene Cernan, who both went two times to the moon on Gemini and Apollo missions; Jack Lousma, who went on Apollo and Shuttle missions to work on Skylab; John McBride; and Nicole Stott,” Hagenbuch said. “I think my favorite story, by astronaut Mark Lee, involved a science experiment on the International Space Station, testing out the best way to drink a Coke in microgravity by using a nozzle to shoot the soda into your mouth like Reddi-Wip.”
Hagenbuch’s students have surprised her with their connections to the space program.
“One student had his grandfather join us for the day who pointed out which rockets he had actually built and how many he had blown up before getting it right. Another student invited her father to come tell us about the booster engines that he helped develop that launched the Space Shuttle,” Hagenbuch said.
“Another parent spoke to our class about his role in polishing the replacement lens for the Hubble Space Telescope when it was out of focus,” she said. “This same parent returned years later to tell us of his part in giving the Mars rover, Perseverance, its ability to ‘see’ like a self-driving car.”
In March 2019, the field trip to Kennedy Space Center just happened to be on the day SpaceX launched a Falcon Heavy Rocket.
“Our students will not soon forget the tremendous vibrations that rattled nearby windows and shook the very ground they stood on,” Hagenbuch said. “They watched in awe as the rocket returned minutes later, gently setting down on launchpad via remote control.”
In recent months, Hagenbuch’s science class has been following the trials and triumphs of SpaceX launching its SN8,9,10 and 11 rockets and learning that NASA has partnered with SpaceX and Blue Origins to put a permanent colony, along with the first woman on the moon, by 2024. This is the new Artemis mission.
“The space program is preparing for careers in a world with daily rocket launches, lunar colonies and satellites that will launch rockets to Mars. What a time to be a science teacher,” Hagenbuch said.
The Feb. 7, 2010, Space Shuttle Endeavor that was launched at night for a 13-day flight to the International Space Station was a special time for Hagenbuch.
“One of my treasured memories was watching this last Space Shuttle launch at night,” she said. “My family and I sat on the beach and watched the glowing, red fireball arc out over the Atlantic Ocean at 17,500 mph.”
The family group included Hagenbuch’s parents, Jim and Kaye Houk of Ellwood City.
“I had often seen the TV pictures of the launches with people lined up along the roads to watch and never thought I would see one. It was spectacular, awesome,” Kaye Houk said.
Jim Houk said that by the time they drove the 1 mile back to Hagenbuch’s home, the rocket was already passing over London.
Mary Kaye Hagenbuch and her students can look out their classroom windows and see science and history happening.
“Jupiter is just two hours south of Cape Canaveral, so my students and I have had the amazing privilege of watching the Space Shuttles and now SpaceX rocket launches out of our classroom window,” she said.
In 1986, Hagenbuch graduated from Lincoln High School and entered the engineering program at Grove City College, but ended with a teaching degree in 1990. Her husband, Robert, teaches geography at Jupiter High School; their older son, Samuel, teaches physics, engineering and earth science at Jupiter High School; and their younger son, Stephen, is currently enrolled in Metropolitan State University in Denver to earn his teaching degree.
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