Thursday, July 27, 2006

Visually impaired experiences her first rocket launch

Mika Baugh hears questions every now and then about whether the visually impaired need help with basic functions, such as eating or walking.

Not at all, the 16-year-old Greenwood girl replies. While others worry about simple things, Baugh spent last week notching a new experience on her path to becoming a scientist.

She participated in the National Federation of the Blind's weeklong "Rocket On!" Science Academy in Baltimore and the Virginia coast. She was among a dozen high school students who worked with NASA scientists, engineers and other volunteers on a project unlike any she had attempted before.

"First time I've ever launched a rocket, yeah," she said Monday.

Baugh, who will be a junior at the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, reveled in the run-up to the launch last Wednesday of a 10-foot rocket.

She already knew there were many blind and visually impaired scientists and engineers. But working with the group's mentors -- some of them blind -- reaffirmed her career aspirations, she said.

"Right now, I'm looking at genetic counseling or something in that arena," said Baugh, whose family lives near the Greenwood Park Mall.

Baugh has limited vision because an optic nerve did not develop correctly. "I can see colors and light and shapes and everything," she said. "I just can't see the details."

In the camp -- as at school and in life -- she relied on her hands as much as basic visual cues.
The students built the rocket at the federation's Jernigan Institute in Baltimore. They used calculations to predict the larger rocket's trajectory and installed circuits and sensors to measure things such as altitude and temperature.

On launch day, they started at 2 a.m. at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, launching at 6 a.m. The rocket's top altitude was about 5,900 feet.

"This is our third year doing this, and the parachute has chronically been an issue," said Mark Riccobono, the federation's director of education. "But these guys got it right."

The camp puts the students in leadership roles. On launch day, Baugh was the project manger.
"A lot of times, blind youths aren't given the opportunity to be leaders," said Riccobono, who is blind. "They have to know that vision is not a requirement for success."

The camp has a public benefit, Baugh said, because it challenges misconceptions.
"Things like this really show the public and everybody that it's OK to be blind."


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