Astronaut Al Sacco Jr. is getting ready to jet off to California to tape an episode of "Home Improvement." The filming of the TV sitcom will bring together the entire crew of the Columbia Space Shuttle - possibly for the last time.
"The old gang is breaking up," says Dr. Sacco wistfully as he takes a break and settles into a chair in his office at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), in Worcester, Mass.
Today, a little more than a month since he returned to Earth, the payload specialist talks about another kind of mission: getting children excited about science.
"There is absolutely no question kids' math and science skills are abysmal compared with most of the industrialized world. Why is that?" he asks.
"Technology and science and engineering are what drive our modern lifestyle, and we're losing that because the kids are not inspired. It's not because they're not bright.... They don't have that fire in the belly, the quest to understand why, that excitement of discovery and risk."
In fact, understanding risk is key, to Sacco. "I think the first thing that we have to do in society is understand cost-benefit in risk. We have to realize that risk is a part of discovery and a part of advancement... There would be no country here without risk.
"I'm not saying everybody has to be a physicist or a chemist or a chemical engineer ... but they are going to have to be technically literate to survive and function in our society in the 21st century. And the nations that recognize this - and we're not one of them, in my opinion - they're the ones that are going to be the leaders of the future," he says.
Education is first step
"We need to invest in education in this country," he says, noting that the lip service paid to that statement is enormous. Schools are struggling, teachers are underpaid, and universities are downsizing, because the bottom line is money, he says. As head of WPI's Chemical Engineering Department, as an expert in Zeolite crystals, and as a father of four, Sacco should know.
While acknowledging that these issues aren't exactly new, Sacco utters a statement he will repeat several times during an interview: "The time has come for committed individuals, and for people to whom much is given, much is expected."
Sacco is one such individual. His involvement with schools has not been just an occasional classroom appearance to show kids his space suit. While on orbit, he and the other crew members from the second United States Microgravity Laboratory taught science lessons to high school and elementary school students via live broadcast. Students asked the crew questions that related to the astronauts' research after doing experiments in their classrooms. The lessons from space reached an estimated 40,000 classrooms across the country through rebroadcasts the next day.
At South High in Worcester, students from several local schools participated in a "contact angle" fluids experiment. Then they talked with Sacco, who was orbiting 180 miles above Earth. "It was really exciting because you knew you were talking to people above you flying in space," said Katie Elworthy, a student from Doherty Memorial.
The impetus for the lessons grew out of several things, especially the poor state of student aptitude in math and science. Sacco and his payload commander, Kathy Thornton, decided to devise an educational aspect to the mission.
"NASA always does a lot of educational things," Sacco says. "One of the things I thought they were lacking was tying an existing science mission to experiments that were very similar to what the kids could do on the ground."
"Our intention was to use the space venue and the aura around astronauts to try to get kids to realize that science isn't for geeks."
Once, while visiting a classroom, he recalls, the students conveyed that "We aren't really interested in science, we just wanted to meet an astronaut."
Looking back on his own childhood, Sacco counts supportive family members as big influences on his going into science. They encouraged him to be curious, often asking, "Why is that? Do you know?"
When he was 8 or 9, the space program started. Science fiction films were also popular at the time. "The science fiction pictures were positive things. We were exploring and we found new civilizations. It put science and engineering in a much more positive light [than films today].
Improving science education in the US will take a lot of different efforts, Sacco says.
Igniting curiosity is the first step, he says. Kids can take it from there. It begins with teachers - and parents - who understand and are enthusiastic about science.
"It's critical that we get away from this 'watch-me' demonstration style of education - to 'you do it, you tell me,'" he says. You have to instill that hunger and curiosity in them at a young age.
"Even with high school kids and eighth-graders and ninth-graders, and it's not cool to look like you're studying. Then, when I talk about sitting on 7-1/2 million pounds of thrust and what it feels like to rocket and travel more than five miles a second, and to look out on the cosmos, and the beauty of the heavens, all their eyes open up.
"And all of a sudden, it's not so uncool."