PRIEST RIVER — Since 1973, Chris Naccarato has dreamed of going to space.
As a kid, Naccarato lived and breathed anything that had to do with space, NASA and astronauts. He became a fifth-grade teacher at Priest River Elementary in 1992, and shortly after, he implemented NACA — National Astronaut in the Classroom Association.
“Thirty years after I had that dream of flying to the moon on Apollo 16 — Apollo 16 came here to Priest River Elementary,” he said.
Through his NACA program, astronauts are invited to the school each year, and that year, in 2003, Apollo 16 Astronaut Charlie Duke shook Naccarato’s hand in the PRE gymnasium.
It was only a short time later, in 2004, when he was encouraged to apply for NASA’s Teacher in Space Program. Though he didn’t get the mission specialist position that would have seen his dream come true, his students met the chosen educator, now a former astronaut, during Naccarato’s annual Space Day event on Friday.
After being selected for the program in 2004, Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger went through training and then, in 2010, she was a mission specialist on the crew of STS-131 aboard the space shuttle Discovery, logging more than 362 hours in space.
Before heading outdoors on Friday to launch several mini-rockets, a school assembly was held, with Metcalf-Lindenburger talking to the kids about “big dreams,” as she said her “big dream” started in elementary school.
Metcalf-Lindenburger talked about her journey to space, which included entering a contest that took her to Space Camp in 1990. College led her to the Northwest in 1993. She then taught earth science and astronomy at Hudson’s Bay High School in Vancouver, Wash., which ultimately led to her becoming an astronaut.
“In one of my classes, a student asked, ‘How do you go to the bathroom in space?’” Metcalf-Lindenburger said, adding that she didn’t know the answer. “So I looked it up … I found out that answer, but I also found out that they were hiring teachers to be a part of the class of 2004 — I could apply to get back on track to my big dream.”
She told the students that if they don’t take risks, they will never know if they could have made their “big dream” come true. When she did get to space, Metcalf-Lindenburger said she “loved” it.
“I loved looking at Earth … I loved looking down on this beautiful planet,” she said.
Metcalf-Lindenburger was not the only visiting astronaut at PRE on Friday. Former Astronaut John Phillips stopped by for Space Day as well, as he does every year since he lives nearby in Sandpoint. Phillips said he actually goes to PRE twice each year for the past seven years.
“He is very, very, super generous to this program by coming each year,” Naccarato said.
Phillips said he has been in space three times — 2001, 2005 and 2009. His missions included STS-100 aboard space shuttle Endeavour, Expedition 11, and STS-119 aboard Discovery.
Also visiting for the event was Col. Clay Shepard, former vice commander of the Civil Air Patrol and Air Force Auxiliary in Deer Park, Wash., for which Naccarato is a captain and aerospace education officer.
Naccarato said he begins working with his fifth-graders toward the annual Space Day event from the first day of the school year. One requirement for them to participate is that they keep up their grades and score well on the Idaho Standards Achievement Test.
“I am extremely proud to say that the fifth grade, all of these kids here, scored proficient or advanced on their test,” Naccarato said. “Our school is 80 percent proficient or advanced for the ISAT, so that is outstanding.”
PRE Principal Connie Kimble said Naccarato’s students were among the highest ISAT scores in the state.
The fifth graders wore SpaceX T-shirts made for Friday’s event in honor of the Feb. 6 launch that included a payload of Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster. One rocket Naccarato and the students launched on Friday included a miniature car as a payload to simulate the SpaceX launch.
One “very special” rocket, however, Naccarato said was designed in honor of Lexi Minish, a Priest River youth who died in a car crash last summer.
“Our dear classmate that these guys miss so much,” Naccarato said of Lexi.
Mary Malone can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @MaryDailyBee.