The mind in flight

A former military pilot turns a lifelong passion into a teaching tool
Sunday, January 9, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 3:34 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

“How do you control this arm?” says John Willett, a senior at Hickman High School, as he presses combinations of keys on his computer.

John Lueckenotte looks up from another computer.

“Try alt-space bar or control-space bar,” he says to Willett.

“Ah, there we go,” Willett says after a pause.

Lueckenotte is used to solving these types of problems. As a volunteer with the Columbia Aeronautic and Space Association, he helps students use computer programs simulating shuttle launches, flights, missions and landings.

Lueckenotte grew up watching his dad use flight simulators to train pilots for United Airlines in the 1970s.

“(It) gave me a bug real early about flying,” he says. “I was seriously considering being an astronaut, and then I got 6 feet 3,” he says.

At the time, that put him past the physical limitations for astronauts.

Although he was too tall for NASA, he became a civil air control cadet and learned hands-on aviation, model rocketry and search and rescue.

He later joined the military with his heart set on flying Army helicopters. After receiving a flight assignment, he was called to fight with ground troops in the Gulf War. When he returned, he says, the night-vision goggles he used had impaired his vision too much to pass his vision test a second time.

Lueckenotte is content with having his pilot’s license. He owned a plane with his father until a few years ago. He flies less now — just enough to get up in the sky every once in a while.

He hasn’t completely lost his dream of going beyond the Earth’s atmosphere.

“If I were a boy-band singer, if I had the cash, I’d try to buy a ticket,” he says. “My own dreams of doing this didn’t work out, so I stayed involved.”

CASA is the only nonscripted high school space program in the country, says Fred Thompson, who teaches the class.

“It goes wherever the student takes it,” Thompson says.

Lueckenotte is one of many professional mentors brought in to teach students to create a successful mission.

“I didn’t really realize I could have a hand in it until this year,” Lueckenotte says, though he’d followed CASA through its Web site.

“This is my geeky side, being able to play at being an astronaut.”

He leans over to help Nick Smith, a Hickman sophomore.

His shuttle isn’t taking off right. Lueckenotte helps him analyze the pilot controls.

“The space part is the cool wrapping, an envelope for what is really being taught here,” Lueckenotte says. “It’s taking it from the blackboard into their own hands.”

Smith reaches the end of the runway and pulls back on the joystick. His shuttle lifts smoothly off the runway.

Angling the joystick slightly, he enters space as Lueckenotte smiles.

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