Nigerian teen to take zero-gravity trip

Associated Press Writer

Nigerian teen Stella Felix rises at 5 a.m. to do chores and then walks nearly an hour to school. She has to share textbooks with schoolmates because her parents can't afford to buy them and does homework by candlelight.

On Saturday, Felix will soar above all that from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on a special Boeing aircraft, becoming the first Nigerian to experience the weightlessness of space flight.

Felix is the first of many students the Houston-based Spaceweek International Association hopes to send on a zero-gravity flight as part of a program that aims to give people worldwide more access to space.

Felix was selected from more than 400 students who applied from the West African country. She will spend two hours on a modified Boeing 727 jet, which will soar six miles above the Earth before dropping, giving about a half-minute of weightlessness with each cycle.

"I feel like I'm an ambassador," the slim 17-year-old told The Associated Press in an interview Tuesday, a day before departing for the United States.

Running her hands down her black skirt, she added that many of her countrymen "thought (space) was only for whites. They don't know that a Nigerian can do it too."

Felix is the top student in her favorite subjects — physics and chemistry — at Moremi High School in the southern town of Ife. Most of her class of 60 are lucky to have one book to share between two students.

"At least we all have chairs," Felix said with a laugh.

Flight organizers said Felix was selected based on her performance at a several-day workshop in which applicants had to build models of rockets and satellites. She also fit the profile they were looking for — a girl between 15 and 18 from a poor family.

Nigeria's ruined infrastructure almost never supplies electricity to her home, and water is drawn from a well in a back yard.

Her parents, who make a living selling secondhand clothes, have not been able to afford textbooks for their daughter's favorite subjects. But they have saved enough money to put all their seven children through school.

"I'll be looking up in the sky for her," Felix's mother Eunice said, hugging her daughter. "I'm very, very happy. God will protect her."

Spaceweek International organizes educational events for the United Nations World Space Week in early October each year.

"We don't want to just inspire students, we want to inspire countries," Dennis Stone, director of Spaceweek International, said in a telephone interview from Houston.

Nigeria was selected to inaugurate the space experience program because of its active space program — the country launched a satellite in 2003 — and to highlight the way that space can assist developing countries, Stone said.

To those who question the wisdom of a space program in a country where 70 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day, Stone pointed out that space technology has helped in disaster relief and in development.

"In the Asian tsunami, (space technology) helped direct assistance to exactly where it was needed," Stone said.

Felix, who divides her spare time between extra physics classes and helping her mother in the market, said she wants to bring attention to the ways that space exploration could help her country. She ticked off communications and disaster and weather monitoring on her fingers.

"I feel so happy to be the first person," Felix said. "I wish to learn more so I can teach my peer group."

Felix will spend six days in the United States, her travel paid for by the Nigerian space program with the zero-gravity trip and other expenses covered by TerreStar Networks Inc., a Reston, Va.-based satellite company.

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