Their cosmic journey was launched by ex-kindergarten teacher Rick Piercy, 50. In 1985 Piercy signed his class up for NASA's Young Astronauts Program, designed to stimulate interest in science by teaching kids to build model rockets and conduct experiments. Inspired by his students' enthusiasm, Piercy, a married father of two, decided to build an observatory of his own. Seventeen years and $20 million in grants and donations later, his Lewis Center for Educational Research (after California Rep. Jerry Lewis, a supporter) houses labs, a flight simulator and a charter school. As director, Piercy spends much of his time wandering the halls. "It's all about being there with the kids and being nurturing," he says.
The keystone of the Lewis Center is GAVRT, which allows students around the country, connected via the Internet, to use a nearby NASA radio telescope. Says Jonathan Portilio, 15: "You can tell your friends, 'We're going to see Saturn tonight.' " Which runs rings around doing homework.
In a mission-control center in Apple Valley, Calif., Jason Torok leads a team of astronomers measuring Jupiter's radio emissions—data that will someday help NASA design spacecraft. "Call your baseline numbers," he tells the group, 1,128 miles away in Norman, Okla., and over the phone comes a skein of figures. Just another day in the space program? Well, no. Torok is 19, and his charges are high school kids, part of the Goldstone-Apple Valley Radio Telescope project, a unique partnership between NASA and precollege students.