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December 06, 2016
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Smurf in space; Science teacher’s lesson reaches the final frontier

Fluhr sits with a model of the rocket that took the smurf, the mission patch and the collage of photos of students.
Contributed photos

EAST STROUDSBURG, PA — In November 2011, East Stroudsburg Area School District teacher and Shohola, PA native Joe Fluhr was met with a chance of a lifetime—to send a personal belonging into space. Fluhr has been teaching space science to children for nearly a decade. His students learn about aerospace science and exploration and they build and fly their own model rockets. Now, they were going to be a part of the “real deal.”

Fluhr, a collector of space memorabilia outside of school, was contacted by a German company that serves that hobby. They mentioned in their letter that they had an association with a Russian cosmonaut and there was a possibility of having a personal item flown to space. Because items belonging to private citizens are rarely taken by the NASA shuttles, let alone a Russian rocket, this presented an extremely rare opportunity.

After discussing this prospect with the students of Leh-man Intermediate, and considering the weight restrictions, Fluhr decided on a toy astronaut Smurf. The Smurf had served as a “test pilot” for the space-related toys he had as a child growing up in Shohola, and Fluhr would stick the Smurf up in a pine tree and stare at it from the ground. Little did he know he would one day see it fly into space.

This same Smurf also flew several times inside a working high power rocket used in his science class demonstrations. The only difficulty was that the cosmonaut agreed to take only flat items such as a photo or letter. An exception would have to be made. After some negotiation—and cleaning off the 30 years of grime from all the years of play—the cosmonaut agreed to take the Smurf, the first toy sent to space, with the Russians.

Knowing he was a science teacher, the Russian and German contacts wanted to do something special for Fluhr’s students. They asked him to take photos of all the children in Lehman Intermediate School and arrange them in a collage so their pictures could also go to space. That photo was sent with the Smurf to Germany and passed on to the Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia. Once there, it was placed in the personal belongings pack of the cosmonaut and carried to the Russian Space Center at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

After an accident involving the original spacecraft during testing and a two-month delay, a replacement ship was readied to launch on the TMA-04M, Expedition 31 mission. With the children watching NASA TV on May 15, 2012, the Smurf and their pictures were loaded on the Russian Soyuz-FG rocket and blasted into space along with two Russian cosmonauts and an American astronaut to spend 125 days on board the International Space Station orbiting the planet over 2,000 times. Fluhr was in awe, watching the cosmonaut board the ship with his pack, knowing that his stuff was inside of it.

The students spent the summer and fall looking up at the space station, knowing they had something riding on the big, star-like object moving across the night sky at 17,500 miles per hour. After traveling 53,000,000 miles and re-entering the atmosphere at 3,000 degrees, the school’s items landed safely in the deserts of Kazakhstan.

After more than a year of waiting, the children recently got the Smurf and photos back, giving them the rare opportunity to see and hold objects that have been to space. These included signed documents and numerous photographs taken by the cosmonaut. Fluhr said his students were absolutely thrilled with this opportunity. “They liked the idea of holding something that had been in space,” Fluhr said, “It’s not like a museum where you can’t touch anything.”

The Smurf can be seen along with the children’s pictures floating in front of the observation deck window of the International Space Station overlooking the Earth. Fluhr said, “This toy had already been to space many times in a child’s imagination. How fantastic is it that this time it really got to go?”

Once his Smurf had been sent to space, Fluhr returned to the pine trees where, as a boy, he had once stuck the Smurf and he thought, “It sure is a heck of a lot higher now.”