After-School Space Program Gaining Popularity in Several States

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A children’s space organization that began with a summer camp at a single location in 2002 has grown significantly, with programs in several U.S. states, according to the organization’s founder.

The Federation of Galaxy Explorers, which started with a summer camp with 150 kids, now boasts about 3,000 in its ranks and has expanded into after-school programs, said founder Nick Eftimiades.

Eftimiades, study lead for protection architectures in the Pentagon’s National Security Space Office, says there is far more growth potential . “There are about 31 million kids in the United States, and I’m going to grab a couple percent of that,” he said during a June 17 interview.

Eftimiades started the Galaxy Explorers as a way of encouraging children to maintain an interest in space. Senior military and NASA officials have said in the past that children are generally interested in space at a young age, but lose that interest by the time they reach high school.

The organization’s overall strategy for combating this phenomenon is to educate children on topics like space science, Earth science, rocketry and space communications. The program also provides an introduction to space-related engineering and business concepts.

The Federation of Galaxy Explorers now features camps and after-school programs in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Colorado and Las Vegas. Individual programs typically are organized by parents who have an interest in space but do not necessarily work in the field, Eftimiades said.

The camps cost about $85 to $100 per child for a week long session, while the after-school programs cost $20, Eftimiades said.

The programs rely heavily on donations of time and goods from aerospace companies, as well as from U.S. government space professionals , Eftimiades said. For example, officials from the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office in Chantilly, Va., which builds and operates the nation’s spy satellites, have been heavily involved in developing and delivering lessons at the nearby camps, he said.

Most Galaxy Explorers are eight to 16 years old and have varying proficiencies in math and science, Eftimiades said. More than half are girls, he said.

The lessons being taught today focus primarily on exploring the Moon, a reflection of the vision for space exploration unveiled by U.S. President George W. Bush in 2003, Eftimiades said. The students learn about what is needed to establish a permanent presence on the Moon, and run through simulations using software developed and donated by Mitre Corp., a federally funded research and development center, he said.

For example, children at the camps work on control panels similar to what would be needed on a Moon base and in mission control centers on Earth, and react to simulated changes in oxygen, heat, radiation and pressure levels, Eftimiades said.

This gives them a chance to learn how to deal with problems that could occur on the Moon, he said.

These summer campers also will have the chance to remotely control a model of a Moon rover via the Internet, Eftimiades said. The small-scale rover will traverse a simulated lunar habitat located at the home of a Galaxy Explorers volunteer in Fairfax, Va., giving the kids a chance to look for ice in craters and find colors that indicate the presence of minerals like iron, he said.

Other events have included breakfasts with astronauts and discussions with military officials about career opportunities in the space field, Eftimiades said.

Former NASA astronauts Roger Crouch and Steve Oswald participated in the most recent such breakfast earlier this year. These events have helped the student participants draw the connection between the math and science work they do in school to a career in the adult world, Eftimiades said.

Air Force Maj. Gen. James Armor, director of the National Security Space Office, is scheduled to talk to students in the Galaxy Explorers program this summer.

During a June 29 interview, Armor said he hoped the program would help encourage children to maintain an interest in space that could later result in a career in the field. “It’s a way to tap into the natural interest that our young people have in space and give it room to maneuver and grow,” Armor said.