OUT OF THIS WORLD: Russell Elementary's space program to continue exploring the final frontier

SMYRNA — Russell Elementary School’s space center has never had a failed mission, and the program’s success will continue with the help of community businesses.

The Russell Space Center is a year-long, after-school program where fourth- and fifth-grade students simulate a 27-hour space mission every May. The program started in 1997.

Program head Chris Laster said although the program’s “Intrepid” space simulator, which is a modified trailer, has never left the Earth’s atmosphere, it started to show wear and tear from its many missions. Laster said the roof was leaking and the trailer’s walls were holding water and rotting.

“The program was in real danger,” he said.

Laster set out to fix the roof and received project bids as high as $15,000.

Laster said his students embodied the program’s mantra of “find a way to get it done,” and raised $550 during a bake sale last year.

Luckily, Atlanta-based MOPAC Plant and Building Services surveyed the space simulator’s damage, Laster said, and decided to take a different method of payment: smiles on kids’ faces.

On Aug. 27, a crew from Woodstock-based Ascent Roofing replaced and restored the simulator’s roof with the same insulated felt material found throughout Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport, said Tim Brewer, corporate account manager for MOPAC Plant and Building Services.

The crew also installed a gutter and drain system to prevent water from seeping into the sides of the simulator.  

Brewer said he had no trouble finding suppliers to donate their time, services and materials to help the program. Atlanta’s Heely Brown Company and Jenkins Metal & Supply and Wisconsin-based ABC Supply donated the materials.

“They saved this program,” Laster said.

Brewer said the roof should last more than 25 years to support Russell students’ continued success of space exploration.

“They aspire to be future astronauts,” he said.


The students handle launch day’s challenges with minimal teacher input, Laster said, and on launch day, some students work in the mission control center while four students act as astronauts in the outside space simulator.

“It’s something they really put their guts into all year,” he said, noting the program is the only one of its kind in the state and one of a few across the country.

Laster said 22 students — mainly girls — are part of this year’s space program.

Students dive into more complex math and science-based skills and work as a team to make sure the astronauts come home safely.

Amira Price, Russell Elementary fifth grader, said she has learned how to work on a team through the program. Amira, 10, is a booster and propulsion systems engineer and her main duty is to monitor the rocket’s engine performance.

“We have to be on our A-game for this,” she said.

Amira and her fellow fifth grade colleagues, including Arielle Terrell, Elizabeth Ekwuemo and Joy Dikko, successfully completed their first mission this May.

Joy, 10, is a flight dynamics officer and her duties include monitoring the shuttle’s direction and engine firings. She said the space program has allowed her to learn more advanced math skills, and she can take those skills back to her classroom and help other students.

“I wanted to challenge myself and work with a team,” Joy said.

Russell Elementary is a Title I school — a school with a high poverty rate — and Laster said the space program helps the students realize their potential.

“It’s something they take with them,” he said.

He said former space cadets have pursued college degrees in computer science and engineering, and some have attended Princeton and Cornell universities. Laster said one student recently graduated from Georgia Tech and is specializing in space satellites.

Laster said there is no single source of funding for the program, and grants from organizations — including the Air Force Association, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Cobb EMS and Pugmire Lincoln-Mercury of Marietta — support the program.