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Boeckman Middle School teacher has his sights set on space

For four days last month, Todd Kohorst got to play at being an astronaut. A couple of years from now, he might get to put on a space suit for real.

Kohorst, in his second year as a science teacher at Boeckman Middle School, is taking part of something called Project PoSSUM. The name is short for Polar Suborbital Science in in the Upper Mesosphere. In layman’s terms, it’s an effort to study the noctilucent clouds that hang out in Earth’s upper atmosphere — high enough they can’t be studied by ground radar, but low enough they can’t be examined by satellite.

The clouds are believed to be indicators of changes in the climate of the upper atmosphere. They have been appearing much more frequently in recent years, a fact scientists believe might be linked to climate change. The clouds are also mysterious enough that returning space flights avoid them out of concern they might do damage.

Once Project PoSSUM’s ship is ready — it’s the same craft being built to launch people willing to pay $150,000 a pop 100 kilometers straight up — citizen scientists like Kohorst could be launched through those clouds to collect information.

For Kohorst, the trip would be a chance to do some science while avoiding the otherwise high cost of booking a trip to space.

“I always thought it would be cool to look back and see the earth and see how round it is,” Kohorst said.

He spent a day during spring break filling out the application. He didn’t think much of his chances. There were only going to be 12 people in the group. But he found out in July he had been selected.

Project PoSSUM has been described as space camp for adults, and the training Kohorst went through was a budget version of what astronauts experience. The 240-pound Kohorst squeezed into a space suit — “I think I’m the biggest person to ever put on a space suit,” he said. “They weren’t sure I was going to make it” — and rode in a flight simluator designed to replicate the specific craft Project PoSSUM will use. There was also classroom time in which Kohorst learned the science behind the research. Everything he learned, he said, is covered in a typical middle school classroom.

PoSSUM members also spent time in a chamber that simulated the loss of oxygen that comes with reaching high altitudes. It left him woozy and, when he was done, exhausted.

“It’s almost like playing a video game when you’ve had a few drinks,” he said. “You’re losing mental capacity, but you’re still trying really hard.”

All that training is leading to 2017, or whenever the PoSSUM craft is ready. That’s when Kohorst and the others will have a chance to ride shotgun on a rocket. The ship will take off like an airplane, then point its nose almost straight up and go full throttle until all of its fuel is gone, hitting speeds of Mach 3.

It will be Kohorst’s job to deploy probes and keep a camera focused on the right spot. Once he reaches the peak of the trip, it will be a 20-minute fall and coast back to the ground.

Kohorst isn’t just sitting and waiting in the meantime. He’s signed up to spend time in a centrifuge in February. That experience, which usually costs $4,000, will be free because of a grant from the University of Texas Medical Branch. He will also help put together the Midwest version of a Project PoSSUM camp for high school students. It’s possible one of those camps could come to Farmington High School, Kohorst said.

He’s also bringing what he learned from his experience into the classroom. He’ll bring it into his class’s motion unit, use it to talk about gravity and discuss the design process used to create the PoSSUM craft when his class does its own unit on design.

“I feel like almost every day I have them referring to something I’ve done on my trip,” Kohorst said.

It doesn’t hurt that kids are pretty impressed with the idea of having a teacher who has gone to space.

“Kids keep asking me if I’m an astronaut,” Kohorst said. “Not yet, but hopefully in a couple years.”

Nathan Hansen

Nathan Hansen has been a reporter and editor with the Farmington Independent and the Rosemount Town Pages since 1997. He is very tall.

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