On Friday, in the newly renovated CASA building behind Hickman High School, three young women smiled and posed for photos in white space suits.

The three were students in the Columbia Aeronautics and Space Association lab course. They held handmade signs to celebrate the first all-woman spacewalk, while a livestream of the women astronauts from NASA played nearby.

NASA astronauts Jessica Meir and Christina Koch were sent on a mission to replace a battery that failed on the exterior structure of the International Space Station. It was the only spacewalk ever to be performed by an entirely female team of astronauts, according to NASA’s website.

Tomás Wexler, a senior at Hickman, said the lab class knew it wanted to do something big to commemorate the event.

“I mean, this has never happened before,” he said. “It’s a really big step in getting more women into STEM and to become astronauts. It’s also a big step towards having women on the upcoming Artemis mission to the moon, which NASA has been planning for.”

NASA plans to put the first woman — and the next man — on the moon by 2024 with the Artemis mission, according to NASA’s website.

Katy Parcell, a freshman at Hickman, said she was excited to be able to learn about and actually watch the spacewalk.

“This would not be happening 10 or 20 years ago,” Parcell said. “It shows the progression we’ve made in not just space exploration, but in STEM and gender equality.”

The CASA program has been active for 32 years. It’s available as a lab course for Hickman students and as a club for students from any of Columbia’s high schools.

Matt Leuchtmann has been the program coordinator, as well as the lab instructor, for the last three years.

“This is the only student-led space simulation in the country,” Leuchtmann said, “and so our students follow the space mission and design process that’s set forth by NASA.”

Leuchtmann said in the class students are given freedom to explore what they’re interested in under the umbrella of aerospace. Students also choose an annual capstone project to focus on.

“We call our teacher, Mr. Leuchtmann, a facilitator instead of a teacher because we try to solve problems ourselves — do project based assignments that we decide on — rather than having a set curriculum,” Parcell said.

Wexler said he likes the freedom students have to make independent academic decisions that fit their interests.

“If you want to build computers, you can. If you want to learn about orbital mechanisms, you can,” Wexler said.

The program allows students to develop project management skills and enhance their self-reliance.

“Many times, it’s a student’s first opportunity to learn how to manage a project in an ambiguous environment where they are required to problem-solve,” Leuchtmann said. “They have always been told what to do in every other class. But here, it’s driven by your own intention and your own focus.”

Supervising editor is Tynan Stewart.

  • State government reporter for the Missourian. Studying investigative journalism. Reach me at judyylucas@gmail.com or in the newsroom at 573-882-5700.

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