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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, June 15, 2006

"Imagination and amazing grace"

"In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes," pop artist Andy Warhol said in 1968.

We live now in a fast-moving world of shifting images and fleeting sound bytes.

Sometimes the world stops spinning for a moment when there’s a tragedy that makes us all stand still and take notice. That was true on Feb. 1, 2003. That was the day when the space shuttle Columbia, on its 28th mission, disintegrated over Texas during re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere. All seven crew members died.

Many of us were aware then who the Columbia astronauts were. Can we name them now" Many of us listened to the stirring words sung by Patti LaBelle at the memorial service in Washington’s National Cathedral. Can we sing them now"

Students at Farnsworth Middle School can.

As an institution, the school has been paying attention all along. While many Americans, before the Columbia disaster riveted them, had become blasé about the space-shuttle program, Farnsworth students were engaged. Their interest lasted more than 15 minutes; it continues these three years later, and will for years to come.

"People had forgotten how miraculous it is," said science teacher Al Fiero in 2003. "But not these kids. They were up at 6 o’clock in the morning the day the Columbia passed over our area. You could see it in the morning sky."

The students had an experiment on board. Following a proposal made by the Central Park Middle School in Schenectady, the students from both schools sent a half-dozen vials of wild plant seeds from the Pine Bush on the shuttle. They had planned to grow the space seeds to compare them with earthbound samples to see whether space travel affected their development.

Since the shuttle disintegrated, Fiero told us in 2003, the students learned a more profound lesson than they would have by growing the space seeds. "The kids understand scientists take risks because they value science and man’s quest for knowledge," he said.

Plants from the control-group seeds — blue lupine, horsemint, dogbane, asters, butterfly weed, and New Jersey tea — are growing now in Guilderland. And so, too, is the students’ appreciation for the astronauts they call heroes.

Last Friday, the rain stopped long enough for a splendid outdoor celebration in the school courtyard to dedicate the Space Shuttle Columbia Memorial Garden.

The free-ranging garden is the center of an ongoing project where students each summer guide visitors through a butterfly house and encourage them to take home native plants to grow in their yards.

A similar memorial garden has already been set up in Schenectady’s Central Park and a third will be established at the Pine Bush Discovery Center.

Friday’s ceremony was broadcast to Farnsworth classrooms as a brass quintet, sitting in front of a clump of cattails, played Festival Prelude.

Katie Bierman, a seventh-grader who plans to be an artist, created the cover for the ceremony’s program. A giant Karner blue butterfly, an endangered species native to the Pine Bush, perches on a cloud-covered earth. Depicted on the butterfly’s wings are symbols representing the space shuttle, NASA, the Pine Bush, and Farnsworth Middle School.

Superintendent Gregory Aidala opened the ceremony, remembering how, when he was a boy, Russia launched the space age with Sputnik, spurring the United States to put a man on the moon.

"The space shuttle program has continued our journey," he said, terming it "a difficult and perilous endeavor."

Christopher Hawver, who has been working with Farnsworth students since 1993, spoke next. Hawver is now director of the Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission. He outlined projects performed by Farnsworth students — from building enclosures to girdling aspens — all to help protect the globally rare inland pitch-pine barren.

"I feel very old," said Assemblyman John McEneny who spoke next. He is 62 and said he could remember when he was young, growing up in Albany, how Karner blues were all over the city, even clumped on storefronts.

"It was like they were always going to be there," said McEneny. But, he went on, care and courage are now needed to preserve New York’s official insect.

"You are our future," he told the middle-school students.

Space exploration, McEneny went on, reminds us the pursuit of science and knowledge requires not only technical skills but a tremendous amount of bravery.

Then, one by one, seven students stepped to the microphone. Each told about the life of one of the Columbia astronauts.

"One of the greatest things about Mr. McCool was he loved kids," said Nicole LaFreinere.

Astronaut Kalpana Chawla, a native of India, was "an extremely smart person," said Alexa Patnaude. She was "inspired by seeing somebody who goes all out to do something," Patnaude said.

Laurel Blair Salton Clark was "determined and goal-oriented even as a baby," said Meghan Sheehan. "Dr. Clark’s goal of becoming an astronaut was the last she would ever achieve."

Michael P. Anderson "died pursuing his passion," said Naeem Gibson, who described him as "a man of great courage" and as being among the first African-American astronauts.

David M. Brown, reported Katie Bolognino, always said, "Whatever I can do to contribute to science...I think is really great."

Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut, "accomplished his dream and gave hope to many Israelis," said Kyra Malamood.

Rick D. Husband said it was humbling and very exciting to be part of NASA, reported Lexxi Martini, concluding that he had taught her, with hard work, "Any dream can come true."

As the students’ words about their heroes hung in the still air, members of the school choir noiselessly walked the garden paths, arranging themselves in a long row among the verdant plants.

"Way up there, where peace remains," they sang the words written by Tena Clark and sung at the national memorial service by Patti LaBelle. "Where silence thunders and angels sing, imagination and amazing grace bring us closer to our home in space."

Students then removed the white cloth from the granite memorial in the garden. On its face was a cast bronze plaque picturing the seven astronauts.

Fiero said it was the third time he had cried that day. We thought how far we had come from the time Senator Edmund Muskie dropped out of the 1972 presidential race after criticism over his crying during a speech before the New Hampshire primary. How wonderful that our heroes now, both male and female, can express a full range of human emotion.

Fiero went on to say that he had looked through NASA papers on work that was completed before the Columbia disintegrated. The space seed experiment, No. 135, called "Garden from the Stars" was marked zero percent completed.

The goal, said Fiero, his voice heavy with emotion, was to nurture curiosity and love of learning.

"As far as we’re concerned," he concluded, "the mission was accomplished."

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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