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Superior students explore space

Fourth grader Monte Karl, right, steps up to a life-size replica of a Mercury space capsule under the supervision of Bill Hissem at Lake Superior Elementary School Tuesday. The spacecraft, builty by Hissem's son, Matt, visited three Superior schools this week. Jed Carlson/jcarlson@superiortelegram.com

One by one Tuesday, fourth-graders at Lake Superior Elementary School stepped into the spacecraft. Some looked nervous, others grinned. Bill Hissem of Appleton gave each one a quick briefing, inviting them to grab the joystick and flip buttons and switches.

"Wait, I can touch anything?" asked Lily Burm.

"You can do anything you want to," Hissem said.

Before switching on a motor that caused vibrations in the full-size replica of a Mercury space capsule, he gave her a countdown: "T minus five, four, three, two, one, launch."

"I think it's great," fourth-grade teacher Leah Norton said. "The kids are so excited about it. The fact that they get to actually, physically go in the capsule, that's the really exciting part."

Her students agreed.

"I felt like it was fun, cool and very interesting to get a feel of what it might have been like for an astronaut," said Dallas Jondreau.

The life-size spacecraft was built by Hissem's son, Matt.

"It just started as a hobby," said Matt Hissem of Appleton, a welder for Pierce Manufacturing. "I wanted a Mercury capsule for myself because as a little boy, I'd been to the space center in Florida and seen all the real stuff in person."

Bill Hissem, a mining engineer, was working north of Orlando at the time.

"My son had a passion," he said. "We made more trips to the cape than we did Disneyland. And this is what you get when you do that."

It made a lasting impression.

"They were not just some ride, some entertainment theme park," Matt Hissem said. "It's real history just sitting there where everybody can look at it."

Once he got tired of building models, he decided to recreate his own piece of history.

Project Mercury, which ran from 1958 to 1963, was the United States' first man-in-space program.

"It went Mercury, Gemini, Apollo," Bill Hissem said. "This is what John Glenn flew in."

The capsule could orbit the Earth in an hour and a half, Matt Hissem told the students, about the time it takes to watch a movie. The country's first step into space, it paved the way to the moon landing, space shuttles and the international space station.

The father-and-son duo bring the Mercury capsule, along with a mission control board, to the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) AirVenture in Oshkosh every year. It's one of the many hands-on exhibits in the KidVenture venue. They've invited everyone, from babies to a 90-year-old Tuskegee airman, to take the capsule for a spin. Even astronauts.

"Through EAA, we probably met half of the original astronaut corps," Bill Hissem said.

Astronaut Frank Borman, who flew in Apollo 8 and Gemini 7, signed the capsule.

"That was an honor," Matt Hissem said.

Alan White of Summit, a member of the Duluth-Superior EAA Chapter 272 and co-chairman of the KidVenture venue, is their Superior connection. Four years ago, that link brought the capsule to Four Corners Elementary School. White said the traveling spaceship demonstrates the importance of math, science and physics.

PTA groups from Lake Superior, Four Corners and Cooper elementary schools pooled their resources this year to bring the capsule, as well as an inflatable planetarium, to Superior for the week.

"It's something different," said Erica Pitrago, president of the Four Corners PTA. "I also think it's nice to bring in someone from outside who's passionate about a subject."

Some schools opened the experience up to the public during Science Night activities.

"The PTA really wants to encourage family and community engagement in our schools," Pitrago said.

The Hissems said they hope their replica inspires kids to keep their eyes on the sky.

"It helps people realize just what the space program has done," Matt Hissem said. "It's one thing to look at it in a museum, but once you climb inside it, it's something you won't forget. It takes your imagination and gives you a real feel of it."

Lake Superior students were asked what future destinations lie ahead for the space program in their lifetimes.

Jondreau suggested astronauts would head to Pluto.

"No," said his classmate Jackson Cox. "Definitely Mars."

Maybe past the asteroid belt or all the way to the gas planets, they mused.

Jondreau still had his sights set on Pluto, based on the lessons of the past.

"Think about it, in 50 years, how much we've improved," he said.

Matt Hissem is in the process of building a full-size replica of a Gemini spacecraft to add to his growing display. He hopes to have it ready in time for this summer's AirVenture in July.

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