Catharine Byl is about as close to outer space as a kid can get.
She's a former elementary school teacher who turned space junkie, started a handful of after-school recreation classes, and now spends much of her time getting kids hooked on space exploration.
This month, Byl will launch a series of classes through Moorpark's community services division and the Conejo Recreation and Park District in Thousand Oaks, with fees ranging from $24 to $41. Her course outline runs from the 1969 moon landing to future life on Mars.
For starters, she strides into the classroom wearing the one-piece astronaut flight training suit she bought from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
"That usually adds some excitement," Byl says. But she has other space gadgets on loan from NASA that are equally awesome.
There are, for instance, the meal trays astronauts use in outer space. Velcro on the back attaches to Velcro on their laps to keep the trays from floating around the gravity-free cabin. Even the silverware has Velcro backing.
Or take the astronaut's sleeping bag. A band around the pillow fits over the head to keep it from bobbing up. Velcro backing makes it possible to sleep vertically or horizontally. To dramatize that prop, Byl describes the eerie sight of a sleeping astronaut whose arms are floating free.
But Byl's most precious souvenirs from space are the moon rocks. They are about an inch in diameter and encased in acrylic to protect them from Earth's atmosphere. She lets the kids peer at the rocks with a magnifying glass.
"These are a national treasure," says Byl, who keeps them locked in a vault while she has them on loan.
For Byl, fascination with space began when she was a high school student in 1969 and her family watched the first manned moon landing on television.
"That planted a little seed," she says. Byl, who is bilingual, became an elementary teacher and has taught in Los Angeles, Ventura County and Mexico City. As a teacher, she found herself incorporating more and more material about the space program into her curriculum.
When the call went out for a teacher to accompany the astronauts on a space shuttle flight, Byl picked up an application but "chickened out," fearful that she wasn't qualified. That shuttle mission crashed on takeoff in 1986, killing teacher Christa McAuliffe and six other crew members.
"It really hit me hard," Byl says. "I wore a black armband for a few days to symbolize my feeling about it." But it didn't dampen her spirit, and she says she still hopes someday to take a space flight.
Meanwhile, Byl's passion for rocketry and space travel grows.
She's a "Star Trek" fan and an admirer of test pilot Chuck Yeager, the first person to break the sound barrier. She has books, papers, maps and pictures on the space program that fill a floor-to-ceiling bookcase. One of her Christmas presents was a technical book on space travel.
She has attended space conferences, space shuttle landings and rocket launches. In 1990 she was selected to attend a two-week workshop for science teachers sponsored by NASA at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.
In her pursuit of the final frontier, Byl has given up full-time public school teaching so that she can specialize in teaching children ages 5 through 12 and adults about space.
"Our planet is becoming overcrowded," she says. "Conditions on the planet are changing, such as with global warming. We have to explore other environments."
One of her classes delves into what life would be like on Mars. She reads students the book "Hello Mars" by Geoffrey T. Williams, which tells the story of a boy who lives on Earth with his grandmother while his parents work on Mars.
In her moon class she has the children make a "moonscape" out of plaster, dust it with powder, then take it into a closet and shine a flashlight on it to see how the moon's surface appears. In addition to the moon rocks, she shows them soil samples from NASA.
Last summer she taught a space exploration series at the Conejo Recreation and Park District titled "Junior Space Academy." Greg Johnson, the district's recreation service manager, reports rave reviews from children and their parents.
"They just eat it up," Johnson says.
STUDYING THE STARS
Former elementary school teacher Catharine Byl offers space exploration classes at two locations.
Moorpark: Moorpark Community Center, 799 Moorpark Ave. "Mission to the Moon," for ages 5 to 7, Thursdays, 3:45 to 4:30 p.m.; for ages 8 to 12, Thursdays, 4:45 to 5:30 p.m., both run Jan. 16 through March 5. A companion course, "On to Mars," will run April 9 through May 28. Fee is $36 plus a $5 lab fee. To register or get more information, call 529-6864.
Thousand Oaks: Conejo Recreation and Park District. "Moon Base Assignment Mars," for ages 5 to 7, 3:30 to 4:15 p.m., Mondays; for ages 8 to 12, 4:30 to 5:30 p.m., Mondays. Both classes run Jan. 13 through March 9 at the Borchard Center, 190 Reino Road, Newbury Park. For information, call 498-3124. Also, "Mission to the Moon," for ages 5 to 7 runs 3:30 to 4:15 p.m. Wednesdays; for ages 8 to 12, 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. Wednesdays. Both run Jan. 15 through March 4 at the Conejo Center, 1300 Hendrix Ave. Fee is $24. Call 495-6471 for information.