Space craft: Artist brings lessons down to earth for Philly kids

At first, Astronaut Tim is little more than a floating head appearing on a computer monitor.

“So, I’m here, in the International Space Station,” he says.

A class of fourth-graders at Anne Frank Elementary School, in the Bustleton neighborhood of Northeast Philadelphia, were talking with Astronaut Tim via Skype. When he backs away from his webcam, he appears to be floating in midair, kicking his legs beneath him.

Every time, it’s a “wow” moment.

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Astronaut Tim, aka Tim Belknap, is not really an astronaut, and he’s not really in space. He’s in the Tyler School of Art gallery at Temple University. The artist, who specializes in kinetic sculpture, built a mock space pod without a fourth wall. A steel armature suspends his 240-pound frame, held aloft by cables hooked into a customized harness he wears under a jumpsuit.

A laptop with a webcam is perched on a ledge beside a floodlight. The visual resolution of Skype is so poor that the cables cannot be seen on the receiving end.

He’s faking it, and prefers the kids don’t know that.

“As soon as the live feed goes up, and I’m talking to them, I don’t think they’re willing to fight the idea that I’m in space,” said Belknap. “They just say, ‘OK, he’s in space.'”

Belknap, who has performed this routine about 10 times since the fall, tailors each appearance to the curriculum of the individual class. The Anne Frank students had just started to learn about gravity.

“Do you know why it looks like I’m floating,” he asks the class, kicking his feet underneath himself.

“No gravity!” replied the kids, a mere 12 miles away.

“The farther you get from the Earth’s surface, the less gravity pulls on you,” explains Belknap. He has no scientific background, but boned up on gravity enough to stay one step ahead of the 10-year-olds.

“If there is something he didn’t know, he would be vague or put it on them and tell them that’s something they can look up,” said fourth-grade teacher Joshua Reeder. “That’s what I always do if I don’t know the answer. That’s what parents can do if they don’t know the answer, either.”

Instilling a sense of wonder

The project began as a reaction to the dismantling of NASA’s space shuttle program last year. Belknap said he grew up watching live shuttle launches while in school. He remembers astronauts visiting classrooms. Without that, he’s worried kids today will grow up without a fascination for outer space.

He’s not qualified to give them technical information, but he can tickle their imaginations and propel them to learn more.

“One of the responses I got from teachers is their library was completely cleared out of space books,” said Belknap. “There’s not one book available about space. Maybe what I’m telling is not translating well technically, but the fact that they are seeing someone floating and [who] is paying attention to them — I’m there for them.”

Belknap is not paid for these performances, which undoubtedly is another attractive feature in the eyes of principals. He says it’s a way he, as an artist, can give back to his community.

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