Leonard Witkin and W. Charles Littles are dedicated, down-to-earth teachers, but if their behavior appeared spaced out this week no one would blame them.
Both are hoping that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) will select one of them from a nationwide pool of more than 10,400 teachers to fly on a space shuttle in early 1986. And the local teachers expect to get an extra boost because they are being sponsored by Rockwell International, the prime contractor on the shuttle, whose manufacturing division is in Downey.
Witkin, a high school teacher for 22 years, and Littles, a junior high school teacher for 19, are two of 944 California teachers who applied to the state for consideration to become the first teacher-astronaut in space.
'Grew Up With Buck Rogers'
"I grew up with Buck Rogers. I've always dreamed about going to space. Now my dream has a chance of coming true. I have to go for it," said Witkin during a recent tour of a model of a space shuttle at the Rockwell plant in Downey.
"There is a kid in every man. I had some reservations. But after talking with my wife, I said, 'Let's try it,' " Littles said in an interview.
The state Department of Education selection committee is reviewing the applications this week and is
expected to choose five Friday, and will eventually pick the two teachers who will represent California and compete with 118 other candidates nationwide.
The winning teacher and a backup candidate, whose names are expected to be announced in September, will train at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston and Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. No date has been announced for the space shuttle mission but it is expected to take place early next year.
Witkin, 46, a Downey High School business and computer teacher, and Littles, 39, a science and biology teacher at Davis Junior High School in Compton, are hoping they will be among the finalists.
Cerritos College, which operates a space management program within its business division in cooperation with Rockwell, picked the candidates.
Rockwell asked the college in January to select qualified candidates and the company would support the teachers, said John Cassidy, director of the space transportation systems division at Rockwell.
"We are hopeful that the Cerritos-Rockwell combination will act as a plus," Cassidy said this week. "Of course, we support the teacher-in-space program. If 60 had come to us (through Cerritos) and asked for our endorsement, we would have.
"We encouraged the college to help us select candidates because we recognize NASA's teacher-in-space project is important to the educational community and to industry."
"We are endorsing them. But we have no control over who is chosen," said Mary Pribble, assistant dean of the business department of Cerritos College.
Rockwell has been the principal contractor for the space shuttle program. It has helped build the Columbia, Challenger and Discovery spacecrafts and is now assembling the Atlantis at its Palmdale plant. Rockwell gave the candidates a tour of the space shuttle to let them know what they would be facing in space.
"A lot of people just don't realize how confining a space astronauts must live in while in space. We wanted to give the candidates a close-up view of what to expect," said Cassidy.
Witkin, his wife, Connie, his daughter, Sarah, 4, and two sons, Scott, 11, and Gregg, 13, took the tour last week and liked what they saw.
Excited and Eager
"I'm eager to go. I'm excited," said Witkin after climbing through a full-size mock-up of a space shuttle.
Witkin and his family spent several minutes inside the model at the Downey plant. It was tight going, with several members of the press, the family and Rockwell personnel squeezed in the crew compartment of the shuttle.
"We wanted to make sure the candidates were exposed to the real thing. This is where the teacher will have to live with other crew members," Cassidy said.
"There's more danger driving on the 605 Freeway than traveling in space," declared Witkin, who lives in Long Beach.
His family also approves of the idea of him being blasted out into space as an astronaut, though it had never occurred to them that Witkin would be going to space.
Son Had Reservations
At first they had expressed some reservations, Connie Witkin said.
"Gregg had said he thought his father was too old to go. Now we are all excited about him going. He is such an energetic and positive person," she said.
Littles was ill and unable to make the tour at Rockwell last Thursday but he said in a telephone interview later that he is no less eager to be chosen.
"I hope I'm the one," said Littles, who lives in Lomita.
President Reagan announced in late 1984 that he had asked NASA to select a teacher to ride the shuttle.
When the company and the college began searching for candidates, "We expected they would be lined up at the gates but there was a lot to be considered--time away from family, training," Cassidy said.