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Blast Off!

 Nathan McCray, K9CPO

ARRL Education & Technology Program Instructor

The West Elementary School space program launches “Lunar Cats” and new technologies.

The year was 1989, cell phones cost nearly $4000, wireless technology and the World Wide Web were in their infancy, and Intel had just released its “fast” 486 processor. 1989 was also significant for a group of teachers and students at Zion District 6, West Elementary School (Illinois) as it launched its first simulated space program. This space program took a group of highly motivated students and simulated a mission to the moon that included the launch of a spacecraft, mission control, a space habitat and splashdown. The students would stay overnight in a space capsule and complete science experiments.

In the words of Superintendent of Zion District 6, John Ahlgrim, “This project actually has a long history at West School dating back to 1989, and while the mission has been absent now for a number of years, the program has come back with quite a launch!”

Student Astronauts in Training

For the 2010 program, training for the astronauts starts 5 months before the mission. In order for the astronauts to be able to conduct their experiments they had to be trained on every piece of equipment. They also had to complete physical training, just like real astronauts, in order to be physically ready to meet the demands of a full 48 hour mission. The astronauts had to be able to function for 24 straight hours without getting any sleep. Dr Ahlgrim sums it up nicely: “The Lunar Cats include a team of students who were selected and trained for the mission within their space habitat; they have been trained physically and mentally for the two day mission, and depend desperately on their equally trained mission control counterparts to make the mission go smoothly.”

Technology Past and Present

The student astronauts from 1989 used VHS video cameras with yards of extension cords to connect with mission control and the space capsule. In 2010 mission control was linked to the space capsule using wireless cameras. This enabled the Lunar Cat astronauts to speak and see their counterparts in mission control.

The ground missions in 1989 were accomplished using remote controlled toy trucks. This year they used a Lunar Rover manufactured from a Boe-Bot robot [A microcontroller operated mobile robot. Ed.] that could be remotely controlled from inside the space module.

Lunar Rover

“Technology” says Dr Ahlgrim, “has really helped this project take on a new life from back in the day, and creates endless opportunities for future missions!” He is spot on. Two high tech pieces of equipment were used during the mission and the “Lunar Rover” was a key component.

The Mars rover was developed by Mark Spencer, WA8SME, for the ARRL Education & Technology Program (ETP). He used a Boe-Bot robot from Parallax, Inc for the rover for this project.1 The rover was fitted with a LYD Mini Wireless Camera equipped with a 2.4 GHz radio receiver. The receiver was connected to an LCD projector in the Lunar Module. The camera was connected to a servo on the front of the lunar rover, which was programmed to move by pressing specific buttons with a simple TV remote control.

CubeSat Simulator

One of the more advanced pieces of technology we integrated into the space experience was the CubeSat Simulator. Also developed by Mark Spencer, WA8SME, for the ARRL ETP, it provides an affordable resource to simulate satellite operations in the classroom. It will soon be available to other schools through the ETP grant program.

Using the simulator, the junior astronauts and mission control personnel were trained on how to operate and take readings for this mission. Each student was able to experience simulated satellite operations in the classroom by recording satellite telemetry transmissions in either binary format or Morse code to better prepare them for “live” telemetry transmissions from spacecraft. Additionally, each student completed extensive research on how satellites operate and on typical satellite designs.

Our students have just touched the surface of how much mathematics, science and technology can be introduced with these resources as part of the school district’s curriculum. (If you want to see how Illinois math standards correlate with teaching curricula introduced through the robotics program, you’ll find that information posted within the ARRL Education & Technology Program pages of the ARRL Web site.).

Teachers Fuel the Liftoff

The space program would not have happened if not for some very dedicated teachers. Ms Jean Heger, Mrs Valery Rummel and Mr Khristo Bactol led the school through this process. The rest of the staff designed projects and experiments that connected with the 2 day mission. It was refreshing to see science integrated so successfully with the entire core curriculum. As Dr Ahlgrim notes, “This simulation is such a great example of the power of applied learning for our students. The applications of math, science, physical fitness, problem solving, team building and leadership are so evident in this simulation. The realization that many of the skills that are developed in classrooms everyday are the same skills that our NASA heroes need to explore our solar system is really pretty fantastic.”

If you are a teacher, or would like to see one of your children’s teachers using this type of advanced technology in your school, I encourage you to refer them to the ARRL ETP. This education outreach project is designed to introduce teachers to Amateur Radio as an instructional resource and to provide an educationally sound curriculum focused on wireless communications. The goal is to offer the resources to build a foundation of wireless technology literacy among teachers and students.

The Teachers Institute (TI) program is a professional development opportunity within the ARRL Education & Technology Program. For teachers the workshop is very inexpensive. The ETP makes a variety of resources available to schools and school teachers to help integrate wireless technology into school curricula using ham radio as an educational tool. For more information use these links, ETP or TI, or you can contact ARRL at

Photos by Nathan McCray, K9CPO.

Nathan McCray, K9CPO, is currently an ETP lead instructor for the ARRL. He is a former sixth grade teacher who moved on to be an assistant principal at West Elementary School in Zion in Lake County, Illinois. He is currently serving his first year as the Principal of Edward Bain School of Language and Art in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

As a teacher, Nathan integrated Amateur Radio, electronics and robotics into his science and math curriculum. He plans to start an Amateur Radio club in his new school and is looking forward to developing clubs in his district's junior high and high schools. His knowledge areas include electronics, computer programming, communications, Amateur Radio, computer systems, leadership and teaching. Nathan’s background includes instruction at the community college level, as well experience as a senior instructor at a US Navy technical school. He has been licensed for over 25 years and holds an Amateur Extra class license. He is married to Michelle McCray, N4NRN, and has two children.

1Boe-Bot kits are available from the ARRL store, ARRL order no. 1223. Telephone toll-free in the US 888-277-5289, or 860-594-0355, fax 860-594-0303;;


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