NASA has found a cure for a common phobia—the fear of asking "stupid" questions. It's not a pill. No therapy is required. The cure is a rubber chicken.
That's right, school kids and even their teachers can find themselves tongue-tied when they come face to face with an astronaut or astrophysicist. This interferes with NASA's mission to reach out, inspire, and educate. "But nobody's afraid to talk to a rubber chicken," says Romeo Durscher of Stanford University, executive secretary for a fowl NASA ambassador named "Camilla" who's taking classrooms by storm.
Outfitted in her own personal spacesuit, Camilla travels far and wide to meet with kids at schools, science centers, and even sci-fi conventions. She helps break the ice for astronauts and other space-celebrities when they meet the general public.
"Camilla is the perfect NASA spokes-chicken!" says astronaut Clayton Anderson. "I am one of her biggest fans. Always a big hit with the kids, she makes science, engineering, technology, and math seem appealing, not threatening, to youth of all ages."
Camilla is willing to go almost anywhere for science.
Earlier this year she flew to the edge of space to investigate a solar radiation storm. A group of high school students in Bishop, California, attached radiation sensors to Camilla and sent her into the storm clinging to the payload of a helium balloon. She flew so high (124,000 feet on one flight) that the daytime sky turned as black as space. Later, Camilla parachuted back to Earth where the kids continue to study the data she gathered.
"We had so much fun working with Camilla on this experiment," says Rachel Molina, a senior at Bishop Union High School and a member of the launch team. "She is one cool chick." One of Camilla's prime missions is to inspire girls to enter the sciences, and it seems to be succeeding. Molina plans to major in physics when she goes to college next year. "Should I ask Camilla for a letter of recommendation?" she wonders.
More than 20,000 people follow Camilla on Facebook, Twitter and Google+, where every adventure is an opportunity for science education.
"During one visit to Johnson Space Center, Clayton Anderson showed her the space toilet trainer," Durscher recalls. "Camilla insisted on trying it out. She ended up getting sucked into the hose—and stuck in the toilet. Luckily, we were able to free her. And we used the incident to teach how space toilets work."
On Nov. 14, 2012, Camilla will be in Australia to observe a total eclipse of the sun. At the end of totality, she's going to run "the Solar Eclipse Marathon," a 26.2 mile race that begins when the first ray of sunlight lances over the edge of the retreating Moon. As far as anyone knows, this is the first time a rubber chicken has run such a race.
Camilla's travel budget is very small, so certain measures are necessary for reasons of economy. For instance, on airplane flights Camilla travels in the overhead compartment. "I ask her to keep quiet," says Durscher, "but every now and then she lets out a disgruntled squawk. I just sit there like I don't hear anything."
Ultimately, Durscher would like Camilla to join the crew of the International Space Station. In particular, he's angling for a berth on Soyuz Expedition 40/41. If this happens, astronaut chats from orbit with school kids and reporters might never be the same.
With a space-suited chicken floating in the background, "no one will ever be afraid to ask a 'stupid' question again."
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