Palassou, now in his 11th year as a teacher, actually came close to becoming an astronaut. Well not too close. He was among 197 teachers in NEAT--NASA's Network of Educator Astronaut Teachers--to compete for a chance to fly aboard a future space shuttle. NASA picked three, not him, but he was chosen to go to the August launch of Endeavour, spending a week at the Kennedy Space Center as a special guest of NASA. He met Barbara Morgan, a fellow teacher and one of the seven Endeavour astronauts, now 55, who was the backup to Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher selected to fly on the Challenger in 1986. The Challenger exploded shortly after launch, killing all on board and delaying both the shuttle program for several years and civilian participation even longer. Morgan waited 22 years before NASA gave her a spot on Endeavour and Palassou was in a front row seat on the bleachers overlooking the launch site to see her off.
Although he won't be part of a future shuttle launch, NASA likes Palassou's enthusiasm for its space program and his commitment to inspire fifth-graders to focus on science, math and engineering as they move into middle and high school and then to college. In his travels and meetings with scientists, he sees students in India, China and possibly even Russia moving faster and unwaveringly in rocket and space travel careers. Although the U.S. may not have the quantity of the enthusiastic 20- and 30-year-olds in the coming decades to keep the U.S. space program and exploration in front as we had in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, Palassou and fellow teachers on NASA's teacher brigade are determined to provide students with the quality needed to keep this country on top.
A Cal State East Bay graduate with a degree in biological sciences, Palassou worked for the Livermore Lab for seven years, losing interest after the federal government cut funds for an environmental science project he planned to conduct in the High Sierra. Always fascinated by race cars, he quit the lab and joined a friend who was in the sport. For the next six years, Palassou raced on tracks up and down the West Coast and even Daytona and Sebring until the cost of moving into the big time races became more than he could handle. Without Madison Avenue and corporate sponsors, Sears Point would be his best shot at racing as a career. That's when he turned to teaching, first in San Leandro and moving to Pleasanton 11 years ago.
Not married, Palassou calls his 33 fifth-graders this year--and the several hundred he taught earlier--"my family." He likes fifth grade because it's the last year kids have just one teacher who gets to teach all the courses. He's using every chance he has to interest them in science and space travel. Last week, he put a video of the Endeavour launch on "YouTube" (search YouTube for "rpsport") for his students to watch. He's also working with his class on building lunar growth chambers, where they can create different environments in which to grow seeds that Astronaut Morgan took into space. Next summer, he's hoping to join two other Pleasanton teachers on a NASA "weightless" flight over the Gulf of Mexico, affectionately known as the Vomit Comet. The teachers will conduct experiments their students will help design, bringing back results that can be examined and tweaked. On Sept. 29, Palassou will talk about his NASA-related work and space science opportunities along with Astronaut Sally Ride at the Sally Ride Science Festival at Moffett Field in Mountain View for fifth- to eighth-grade girls. Check www.sallyridefestivals.com for more information and be sure to tell Palassou you're from Pleasanton. He might have a special NASA experiment for you to handle.