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Teacher In Space Candidate Completes Proficiency Flight


RENO, Nev., March 31, 2005 -- For pilot Bob Ray, it was a routine proficiency flight, but for teacher Pam Leestma, it was the flight of a lifetime and the first step toward realizing her lifelong dream of traveling into space.

Ray and Leestma, a 30-year-veteran teacher from Valley Christian Elementary School in Bellflower, California, took off from Reno Stead Field at 12:15 pm in a two-seat MiG-21UM supersonic jet trainer owned and operated by commercial spaceflight company X-Rocket, LLC. Leestma was selected as a spaceflight candidate in X-Rocket’s Teacher in Space program.

The former Czech Air Force MiG-21UM, now dubbed Maching Bird 1, is one of the highest performance civilian aircraft in the US and the first step in X-Rocket’s plan to open space to all Americans. Leestma’s flight was no tourist ride, like the MiG flights sold to American tourists in Russia. “During today’s flight, Pam filled important crew functions,” said pilot Bob Ray, “including helping to monitor instruments and perform traffic watch.”

For Pam Leestma, today’s flight seems only natural. Her cousin, David Leestma, is a NASA Shuttle astronaut, and she has had a long-time fascination with spaceflight. “This is the adventure of a lifetime,” Leestma said. “To see God’s Earth from such a vantage point makes me think of the teachers who inspired engineers, scientists, and mathematicians to achieve things such as this. I hope to continue to inspire the next generation to find their dreams, achieve them, and make a difference in our world.”

“X-Rocket’s Teacher in Space program will help teachers like Pam Leestma realize their dreams,” said company president Edward Wright. X-Rocket plans to operate a fleet of suborbital aerospace trainers that will serve multiple functions, from advanced test pilot training to adventure tourism experiences to Teacher in Space flights. The company’s motto is “Spaceflight for the rest of us.”

During the 1980’s, NASA created its own Teacher in Space program, which was later replaced by the NASA Educator Astronaut program. Problems with the Shuttle program have prevented NASA from actually flying any teachers in space, however, and the planned replacement of the Shuttle with a Crew Exploration Vehicle will reduce the number of available flight opportunities for all NASA astronauts. Newspaper articles have spoken of possible layoffs in the NASA astronaut office, so opportunities for NASA to fly educator astronauts will remain scarce.

“This is where private enterprise can play a role,” Wright said. “Suborbital vehicles now under development will carry people into space much more affordably than the Shuttle or CEV. For under twenty million dollars, we could fly 200 teachers a year, four from every state in the union. Imagine thousands of astronaut teachers in schools all across the country, within the next decade. For decades, we’ve told students that if they studied math and science, they could grow up to become astronauts and go into space, but in reality, kids had a better chance of growing up to become NBA basketball players. What message does that send? Suppose we could turn that around, and show kids that they have a realistic chance of going into space? How cool would that be?”

X-Rocket is currently seeking sponsors to help make that happen. Today’s flight is only the beginning.

“Pam Leestma has shown that America’s teachers have the ’Right Stuff.’ We don’t intend to let them down,” said Wright.

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