Flight director eyes seat on space shuttle mission

Challenger Learning Center staffers reach for the stars

Posted: Thursday, January 03, 2002

It isn't visions of sugar plums dancing in Daniela Martian's dreams. It's space. As seen from the controls of the space shuttle.

On Jan. 14, she will take a giant step in that direction when she enters officer training school at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. After completing that training in April, she will begin undergraduate flight training, a year-long course in either San Antonio, Texas, or Pensacola, Fla.

"I'm excited and I'm scared," Martian said of moving closer to the fulfillment of her dream of becoming an astronaut. "It's an emotional roller coaster, really, but an exciting one."

She credits her father, Dan Nagel, of South Dakota, for her love of flying and for adding to the thrill of realizing her goals.

"My dad is extremely excited for me," Martian said. "Part of that excitement is because of his love for flying and watching his daughter accomplish all the things that she wants to accomplish."

When Nagel was discharged from the U.S. Army in 1965, he read an article about commercial airline pilots making $30 an hour.

"I thought maybe I wouldn't mind doing that," he said. He eventually held a private pilot's license and owned a Cessna 140A. Responsibilities of family and farming kept his feet on the ground, but his heart remained in the clouds. In 1982, when Martian was 9 years old, Nagel hired a pilot to take his daughter for a ride.

"It's possible she caught the bug from me," he said, acknowledging that his influence may have shaped the direction of his daughter's life.

Remembering the view from that airplane helped Martian expand the possibilities for her life.

"As a kid in a small town I didn't know I could do these things," she said. "In some ways I was sheltered from the idea that I could be anything other than what I knew in my community. But seeing what opportunities there are makes me realize that it doesn't matter what my background is. The opportunities are there. The doors are there. I just had to walk through them."

For the last two years, Martian, a former math teacher at Kenai Central High School, has been the lead flight director at the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska. In that role, she oversees the center's curriculum for camps, missions and teacher training.

"I think Daniela's going to be great at anything she puts her mind to," said Steve Horn, executive director of the center. "She had a window of opportunity to pursue a dream, and she's going for it. She has the support of the organization and my personal support for her endeavors. We wish her well."

Martian has completed 30-some hours of flying time, thanks to Alaska Flying Network in Kenai.

"She walked into my office and said she wanted to learn how to fly," said Chip Versaw, certified flight instructor and owner of Alaska Flying Network.

Martian completed her first solo flight on Aug. 14.

"She's going to make an outstanding pilot," Versaw said. "She's very enthusiastic and intelligent. And she's definitely enthused about it. I think this is great."

Martian's achievements are a team effort that includes her husband, David, an eighth-grade math and science teacher at Nikiski Middle-Senior High, and their two children, Ashley, 5, and Trevor, 2.

"This is going to be a pretty neat adventure for all of us," David Martian said. Having served in the U.S. Army and currently serving as a captain in the Army National Guard has given him an understanding of the impact his wife's career will have on the family.

"Her doing stuff like this is the reason I married her," he said. "She has big goals in life. That's the draw to me. She gets after them and makes things happen."

David also shares his wife's love of flying.

"That's one of the things we click on," he said. "Learning how to fly was on the horizon. One of us was going to do it and she got the priority this time."

His blessing came with one stipulation.

"She needs to sneak me on board," David said of his wife's goal of flying the space shuttle. "That's the agreement. I wouldn't agree otherwise."

Mindful of the influence adults have on young people, David said, "I hope other young women follow her example. That's one of the biggest things I'd like to see come out of this. That message is often not really put out to a lot of women, and I think they get forgotten in the sense that they can do stuff like this."

A little closer to home, he was aware of the impact on their daughter, Ashley.

"This is exactly what I want her to be around," he said. "I want her to have that same drive and ambition."

Martian also is mindful of the impact good role models have on youngsters, for someone to say "OK, she's going after the things she wants and she's accomplishing them. ... The opportunities are out there if you want them bad enough."

And taking advantage of the opportunity to fly has been its own reward.

"It's peaceful and exhilarating to get behind the controls and see the world from a different level," she said.

A space shuttle flight would take that feeling to a different level.

"Less than 150 people have even been up in space, and even fewer have sat at the controls of the shuttle," she said. "Think of everything that goes with that."

Her father called her achievements "a wonderment."

"I think she has the ability, and I think she certainly has the will," Nagel said. "We talk about flying together, but I told her I couldn't keep up with what she's going to be doing."

He has, however, been stung by the bug he passed to his daughter, focusing once again on his own dream of flying.

"I've gone back to work on that," he said. "We'll see what happens."

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