When the space shuttle Atlantis lifts off Friday, Jerry Fetter of Whitehall Township will be more than a casual observer.
Fetter, who teaches biology and astronomy at Council Rock High School in Bucks County, received a special invitation to come to Florida and watch the final launch of a NASA shuttle with other honored guests.
The email said Fetter had been nominated to apply to become a teacher in space. After spending weeks completing the lengthy online application and passing his flight physical, Fetter was notified that out of about 1,600 applicants, he was among 200 finalists. When NASA picked the final three, however, Fetter was not chosen.
When he had the opportunity to reapply, he decided not to try again. Among other reasons, Fetter said he didn't want to uproot his family and move them to Houston, where he would have to train to be an astronaut.
Still, Fetter stayed involved with NASA through the Network of Educator Astronaut Teachers, which grew out of the teacher-in-space effort to help spread the importance of math and science to students.
In 2005, he took a one-year sabbatical from teaching to help research and develop educational ideas that are passed on to educators across the country.
Fetter did most of the work from his computer at home but also spent time at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the Johnson Space Center in Houston and the Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala. He also ran a weeklong research program in Hoboken, N.J., for the Goddard Space Flight Center.
In addition, he witnessed the August 2007 launch of the space shuttle Endeavour, which included teacher Barbara Morgan among its crew.
In his classroom, Fetter uses research and educational programs developed by NASA. When possible, he said, he directly connects his students with NASA personnel. For example, a student working on a graduation project was able to talk with James Garvin, a leading NASA scientist.
Fetter said one of the space agency's main focuses is educating students.
"There's no better motivator than NASA," he said. "Teaching motivated students makes it easier for them to learn."
Because of Fetter's involvement with the network, NASA invited him to be part of the final launch of a space shuttle. Weather permitting, Atlantis will embark on a 12-day mission to the International Space Station with a four-member crew.
Fetter, 47, will view the launch with other teachers who belong to the NASA network. While he will be watching the end of the 30-year shuttle program, he hopes there will be more achievements and growth in NASA's future.
"Just like anything else, you reach highs and lows, but you're never on one for too long," he said.
Fetter believes NASA will continue to uncover the mysteries of space. When it does, he said, he'll be ready to share the information with his students.