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Pompano Beach High astronaut team wins state challenge

They were in the midst of their mission when a master warning popped up on the screen: Fire in the payload.

Three of the would-be astronauts wanted to abort.

Back at Mission Control, the young scientists saw the fire but refused to give up. They flipped through the pages of their manual, hoping to find the answer.

They knew they needed to open the bay doors to the payload to help cool the shuttle, otherwise it could burn the astronauts to death.

“We didn’t know what to do,’’ said Carlton Gillespie, mission specialist. “It was a complete curve ball from left field which we weren’t prepared for.’’

Within minutes, the shuttle computer forced them to abort the mission. But despite the setback, the team of Pompano Beach High students won the first place in the State of Florida Student Astronaut Challenge.

“They were extremely impressive,” said Peter Carasano, competition coordinator. “We wanted a group that came in, excelled, was consistent and well-rounded.”

The team from South Plantation High came in second.

The Space Shuttle Enterprise flight simulation was just one of four parts of the state-wide competition. The students also had to take a written test on aerospace concepts, solve an in-flight problem, and create a zero gravity experiment that could be performed on the International Space Station.

Hours before they were due to demonstrate their experiment, the group of young astronauts were still bouncing around ideas.

“We wanted something that could be tested and that NASA could use in the future,” said Dominic Balistreri, the mission’s pilot.

They ended up with presenting a suit with springs that would allow astronauts to exercise in outer space to prevent muscle atrophy.

“We needed a problem and a solution,’’ said Gillespie. “The suit was the solution.”

The competition was created by the Florida Department of Education in partnership with Walt Disney World Resort, Florida State University Schools, Coaxis International and the Challenger Learning Center as a way to spread a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) initiative statewide.

“We are really excited for big initiatives in STEM, we would like to be a model for other states,” said Kelly Seay, deputy director of educator relations for the Florida Department of Education. “I think we’ve made a great impact. It will do a lot for our state, our economy and for our STEM focus.”

The team — made up of Chris Portela, Joe Caraccio, Jason Carvalho, Nicholas Lucas, Gillespie and Balistreri — was chosen in Ralph Marchand’s advanced placement physics class, after he asked the students if any of them wanted to be astronauts.

“They were all committed, and were willing to put a lot of effort at least two months in advance,” Marchand said.

Balistreri had practiced so much in a computer simulator at the high school that he gained his position as pilot of the shuttle.

“I was always practicing after school for an hour and a half,’’ said Balistreri. “I was comfortable and landing perfectly every single time.’’

Portela, who served as the team’s co-pilot, said it was the diversity of the team that gave them the edge. “Some of us were computer guys, others biology, others math,” he said.

The winning team got to spend a day at the Walt Disney World Resort and visited Disney’s Hollywood Studios with unlimited fast-pass privileges. They received lunch with a Disney Imagineer in one of the park’s prop rooms, where they got to ask questions about their competition, and the engineering opportunities at Disney.

All of the team members graduated with the class of ’12 and are now heading off to college to study their chosen fields: physics, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and math. But after winning the challenge, only Gillespie will pursue a career as an astronaut.

With the days of landing on the moon scuttled, the 17-year-old sees a very different future for himself: working for a company that provides private space transport.

“This challenge definitely pushed me over the edge,” Gillespie said. “I’m going to have to work hard, but I can achieve it.”

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