Columbia students pilot aerospace simulation

Wednesday, February 11, 2009 | 4:39 p.m. CST; updated 9:11 p.m. CST, Wednesday, February 11, 2009
Nadia Vizitei points to a problem area on-board of the CASA space simulation at Hickman High School. CASA is a student-run mission where students learn how to handle computer programming and mock emergencies. Vizitei says that the battery has turned off, but the cause is still unknown.

COLUMBIA — To the outsider's eye, it may just be pretend, but to Columbia students, the 2109 CASA space simulation is quite real.

"It's a very realistic program," John Prost, the lead pilot and a Hickman senior, said. "If we come down too hard, our landing gear will snap."

To watch

To watch the mission live, watch Channel 16, Columbia Public Schools' information channel, or go to CASA's Web site through Saturday.

For an online discussion of Columbia's public schools, go to

CASA, the Columbia Aeronautic and Space Association, is running its 21st annual aerospace simulation, a week-long simulation of the International Space Station. Ninety-two students from Columbia middle, junior high and high schools are spending this week working together at Hickman High School.

Even though the shuttle is just a simulation, they take it seriously.

This week at Hickman, they work eight hours a day and break only for lunch. The lunch break, said Helen Lin, a Hickman senior, is their one chance to "pause and come into real life." At all other times, everyone is focused on the mission.

The CASA crew includes astronauts, mission controllers, a public affairs crew, a production crew and, yes, ninjas. While NASA doesn't have ninjas, CASA does. The ninjas create simulated on-board emergencies, which they call "SOBEs." They might cut power supplies, cause problems with the thermal control system or even create emergencies with astronauts.

"(The ninjas) will pull out people and say, 'Hey, you're injured,'" said Lin, a public affairs officer.

After the astronaut goes to the makeup area and receives his or her "injury," he or she goes back to the shuttle, where the crew has to handle the medical emergency. Stocked with medical supplies and even equipment for checking vital signs, the space station and students are prepared to handle such emergencies.

Meanwhile, mission control monitors Space Station Freedom, the public affairs team records the live Mediacom broadcast and the production crew monitors the cameras, computers and systems required to run the simulation.

Chris Novosel, a Hickman senior, has the honored position of "wizard." He monitors all of the systems in production. This is Novosel's sixth year working on a CASA simulation. Over the past three years, he has helped the production crew move to an Internet-based system, all of which is coded in HTML.

"I really like the problem solving," Novosel said. "It's really exciting to get problems you have to solve up there."

After graduating in May, Novosel wants to study mechanical or aerospace engineering and work for NASA. He wouldn't be the first CASA student to do this.

Fred Thompson, head facilitator of the CASA mission, said some alumni of the program now work for NASA.

The simulation, he said, is not just about science or computer programming. Students are encouraged to bring their individual skills and interests to the mission. One of the brick walls is student-painted with a Marvin the Martian scene, a music experiment is being conducted on board the shuttle and some students apply their foreign language skills to the mission.

"It's an opportunity to let kids explore their interests hands-on," said Thompson, who teaches at Hickman.

He said many students involved in the program are National Merit scholars, while others are just trying to get through school.

"CASA keeps some kids interested in school," Thompson said.

When the mission ends Saturday, the CASA group will continue exploring aeronautics and space and will begin brainstorming for next year's mission. Thompson said the program, in its 21st year, is "continuously evolving."

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