Atwater boy's NASA dream takes flight

10/02/2010 12:33 AM

10/02/2010 1:22 AM

ATWATER -- When NASA's Space Shuttle Discovery launches next month, Atwater's Robert Smith will hear the roar of the engines and feel the waves of vibration -- but he won't see a thing.

Smith, a 9-year-old student at Elmer Wood School in Atwater, is legally blind.

"He can still see shadows, and he's learned to read and write Braille, but this will be with him for the rest of his life," said Sylvia Nelson, principal at Elmer Wood.

On Friday morning, he learned that he'll be going to Cape Canaveral, Fla., with his father, Troy, to watch the space shuttle launch from the Kennedy Space Center.

The announcement was made during a surprise Friday-morning phone call to Smith's classroom. Interrupting a spelling test, Nelson walked into teacher Annette Strong's classroom and announced to students that Smith would soon be getting a "special call."

After a few minutes of waiting as school staff tried in vain to get the speaker phone to work, Smith marched with dozens of his classmates into the principal's office. There, Lawrence Ira Pleskow, of Beverly Hills-based nonprofit When U Dream A Dream, revealed the news.

The trip was prompted when a retired school employee wrote a letter about Smith's love of science and "Star Wars." Indeed, while waiting as school staff addressed technical problems with the speaker phone, Smith talked about how cool it would be if the phone call could be placed on a science fiction-esque video phone.

His father, Troy Smith, said that the television at their home is often tuned to the Discovery Channel, thanks to Robert.

"Robert is very into science," Nelson said. "This is a great opportunity for him."

Smith could see when he started at the school in kindergarten, but his teachers and school staff noticed that he had started running into objects. Doctors soon learned that Smith had a tumor on his optic nerves, and eventually, he lost his ability to see. His mother died around the same time, Nelson said.

"He's a strong little boy, with help from his father and grandparents on both sides. He's a phenomenenal student."

Teachers encourage Smith to follow his dreams, despite his disability.

"We tell him that he can still be a scientist," Nelson said. "Even though he's visually impaired, he can be whatever he wants to be. He may not be an astronaut, but he can work with astronauts, so we're just trying to show him that it can be done. He's a very smart little boy.

Smith's classmate, Oswaldo Martinez, who is also visually impaired, also learned Friday that When U Dream A Dream plans to send him and his family to New York City in December, where he'll get to visit the famed toy store, FAO Schwartz.

"We fulfilled two dreams for two people from the same school," Pleskow said.

When U Dream A Dream was founded in 2002 as a way for Pleskow to help physically challenged kids. In 2007, the organization's mission expanded to include children with visual disabilities.

The space shuttle launch is scheduled for Nov. 1, the day after Halloween. Smith will miss the usual holiday activities, but he'll get a treat just the same.

Brandon Bowers is online editor for the Merced Sun-Star. He can be reached at bbowers@mercedsun-star.com or (209) 385-2464.

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