Flight director helps young minds reach for the stars

Everyone's favorite Martian

Posted: Thursday, March 01, 2001

Some students visiting the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska in Kenai ask Flight Director Daniela Martian if she made up her last name just for this space-related job where one of the missions is a simulated trip to Mars.

The answer is no. In her case, Martian is pronounced "Martin."

"You'll have to ask my old man why," she says with a grin, referring to her husband, David, an eighth-grade math teacher at Nikiski Middle-Senior High School.

And no, she does not get any cracks about being someone's "My Favorite Martian," like on the 1960s sitcom.

Martian's first name is not pronounced like it's spelled, either. It's pronounced "Danielle." She said it's a German name,

but good-naturedly blames her parents for that confusion.

Martian was a math teacher at Kenai Central High School just over a year ago when she was tapped to be the flight director at the then soon-to-open Challenger center. At the time, the 26-year-old mother of two had been teaching at KCHS for 2 1/2-years. It is a profession she loves .

"I'm of the philosophy that teachers are born, that they know they have that gift," Martian said. "It was very natural for me. Teaching is how I make myself happy."

Martian and her husband taught in Tok for a year before moving to Kenai. Prior to that, she taught for a half-year in North Dakota, her home state.

Martian has a bachelor's degree in math education from Dickinson State University in Dickinson, S.D. She jokes she moved to Alaska to find better weather. Despite the blistering cold temperatures in Tok, she said the wind never blows there, like it does on the Great Plains, making minus 20 feel warm.

"When we lived in Tok, it got 72 below zero, and, after a year, we decided we'd rather live there than go back to North Dakota."

Though she misses the day-to-day interaction with the same students, nurturing them through problems and watching their success, she said her Challenger job is even more rewarding than classroom teaching.

"When I train teachers, my impact on kids grows exponentially," she said. "That effect is my new reward."

For the last year, Martian has been the Challenger center's administrator, as well as its flight director. With the hiring of Soldotna City Council member Steve Horn as the new executive director, she gives up her glass-walled corner office, but does so gladly.

"Having to be the administrator the last year was an enormous job," she said, gesturing to the piles of paper work on her expansive desk. "But I understand how it all works now, and I can just go with the flow."

Martian had no background in business administration before she took the Challenger job, and neither did she have any training in theater arts, something that is integral to flying missions with school-age children.

"Part of my job is playing the role of flight director (during missions), but the kids are the real actors," she said. "It's not a difficult scenario to create that feel or sense of urgency just by changing the inflection in my voice."

During missions, something inevitably goes wrong, triggering flashing lights and alarm bells. Martian, with urgency in her voice, will direct students how to correct the emergency or to abandon ship.

In one of the center's simulations, "Rendezvous with a Comet," a meteor shower disables the "space station" at about the half-way point in the exercise, which creates a good excuse for a half-time briefing and a switching of crews.

The preflight and midflight briefings allow Martian to return to teaching math and science on a white board, as she helps students calculate gravity, orbits and trajectories. Physics, algebra and geometry all come into play.

Martian said she had very little computer or networking experience before joining the Challenger team. With only a staff of four, much of the maintenance and upgrades of the center's 13 Macintosh G3 Power PCs falls on her. In addition to the computers, a bank of DVD, CD and cassette players must be programmed and maintained.

She also personally supplements the mission material that students train with for weeks or months before coming to Kenai to fly a mission, which may be even more important than the flight.

"We interact with the children for two hours. Most of the learning happens in the classroom prior to the mission," she said. "That's where the education comes in."

Most children have some fascination with space flight, she said, adding that she was no different.

"I would definitely go into space," she says without hesitation. "Less than 300 people have been there, so can you imagine what kind of mystical experience it would be like? It would be excellent."

Martian has the minimum requirements to apply to become an astronaut -- an undergraduate degree in math and three years experience in a math-related field -- but she says NASA probably doesn't take a serious look at recruits without a master's or doctoral degree.

She said NASA only picks 30 people to undergo training every two years. That's out of 4,000 applicants. So for now, Martian is solidly on terra firma, inspiring future astronauts.

Despite focusing on schoolchildren, her job is year-round, which sometimes gets her teased by her husband and all her teacher friends about not getting long Christmas breaks and summers off. Martian said she isn't jealous of them or their long vacations.

"I do claim to have the best job in the world."

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