For the first time since legendary educator’s passing, Columbus students step into space
NORWALK — Eli Restrepo had a tense moment Thursday morning and a difficult decision was in his hands.
In the gym of Columbus Magnet School, Restrepo, 10, sat at a long table with 19 of his classmates facing the stage, over which a projector screen was broadcasting an additional seven members of his class, each of whom represented an Apollo astronaut.
Restrepo held the lofty title of flight director in Columbus’ 24th annual Young Astronauts mission, an approximate re-enactment and celebration of the 50th anniversary of both the Apollo 11 and 12 lunar landings, called “In Vistigiis Apollo 2019,” which a group of 27 fifth-graders played out over the course of 24 hours Thursday into Friday.
“My job is to make sure everything is in check. I have to make key decisions and I have the power to abort,” Restrepo said after the ordeal, in which the space capsule was said to be struck by lightning, causing an interruption in the broadcast. It was one in a series of simulated emergencies that the students would be asked to respond to during the mission and Restrepo coolly made the choice not to abort and to carry on.
The two-day mission was the culmination of years of work for the fifth-graders. Lessons relating to Young Astronauts Mission Landing are worked into the curriculum from the time students are in first grade. In fifth grade, students choosing to take part begin meeting weekly, working toward the final simulation in May.
“It’s an after school program, but it really is integrated into the whole school fabric. It’s woven into who we are,” said Commander-in-Chief and Columbus fourth-grade teacher Andrew Pearce.
“This is one of the strongest fabrics of the school. It’s unique. It’s unlike anything you’ll see anywhere. It represents everything great about Columbus,” Principal Medard Thomas said
Pearce has helmed the operation for close to two decades. He inherited it from the creator of Young Astronauts, former Columbus Principal Arthur Perschino, who died of cancer earlier this year. Thursday and Friday’s mission was the first since his death, and Perschino’s legacy was honored often during event. A patch commemorating this year’s mission features the moon, the capsule, five sides celebrating 50 years since the missions, 27 stars for kids in the mission, all with their names, Perschino’s name at the top in gold, with a pair of black songs over an image of the moon, in honor of the song that Perschino would sing to his students and which was sung at the landing ceremony Friday morning. The lyrics go: “Black socks, they never get dirty, the longer you wear them, the stronger they get. Sometimes, I think I should wash them, but something inside me keeps saying not yet.”
“It’s like I was losing a second father,” Pearce said of his relationship with Perschino, who was a mentor and a close friend. “He was a standup guy in every way and a fabulous principal. If it wasn’t for him, this wouldn’t have happened.”
The Friday launch ceremony and all-school assembly was attended by Mayor Harry Rilling, members of the Common Council, Board of Education, Central Office staff, state Reps. Lucy Dathan, D-New Canaan, Terrie Wood, R-Darien, and Travis Simms, D-Norwalk, former Columbus Principal Marilyn Liberatore, parent volunteers and former astronauts, each of whom saluted Pearce as they greeted him.
“As we look back to the past, for the inspiration for the future, we are reminded not only of the technical skill of the astronauts and controllers of Apollo, but how their dreams fired up the imagination of someone to whom we owe the entire Columbus Young Astronauts program. it is with a great sense of gratitude that we, the members of In Vistigiis Apollo, and indeed all of Columbus, dedicate this mission to Arthur J. Perschino, the great Mr. P,” said Noah Welte, 11, one of two public affairs officers, before the landing simulation began. “When our astronauts are standing on the lunar surface, we know that Mr. P is looking down on them with a smile in his heart. He set a high bar for all of us, but we know he will be proud of everything the school has accomplished.”
What followed was a roughly 30-minute landing sequence, led by the students in roles like capcom, surgeon, guidance officer and flight dynamics officer, among others, for which they auditioned and created biographies. The capsule crew members represented astronauts who took part in the actual Apollo missions, including Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Pete Conrad (the program allows capsule crew members to participate in a staged moon walk, in which they read lines spoken by the likes of Armstrong and Conrad). Each disembarked through the mist, provided by fog machines, following the landing to loud cheers from the auditorium.
Kix Ryen, a parent volunteer whose son, Keir, was an integrated communications officer, or INCO, said the program teaches far more than science and history to the students.
“I see it as not just a science program, but also a primer for some real-life skills,” Kix Ryen said. “It’s teaching them so many things beyond science.”
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