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Students remember slain teacher by sending him to the stratosphere

Last fall, sixth-graders in Spanaway, Wash. were forced to confront a tragedy no student should have to go through when their beloved teacher Rob Meline died. To make matters worse, Meline's death was the kind that makes the evening news.

Now, after a school year of grief and healing, the students settled on a unique way to honor their teacher: They sent him into the stratosphere.

Scott Birdseye, who took over Meline’s sixth-grade class after his death, says Meline’s great loves went something like this: family, teaching, the Washington State Cougars, and space. Meline was a space fanatic, having attended space camp for teachers, and obsessed over astronomy and space travel in class.

That passion inspired Birdseye and his students to create the USS Meline, a tiny “spaceship” about the size of a toaster oven. A helium-filled weather balloon lift it to nearly 90,000 feet, up where the blue sky gives way to endless black. It carried a flight computer to record data, a GPS tracker and a little wooden cutout of a rocket bearing a picture of Meline.

On a recent sunny afternoon, Birdseye gathered his students outside Camas Prairie Elementary, and launched their friend and teacher toward space.

It was cathartic moment for students like David Mosoreti. And though it’s hard to imagine how a 12-year-old could be equipped to deal with such a tragedy, Meline’s passion for space gave him a kind of cosmic point of view which helped kids like David find some perspective.

“Once he told us that the galaxy is infinity, and no human mind can actually think of infinity until they are dead. So I just thought, ‘He can finally think that. He can finally know how it feels to know infinity.’ So that really relived the pain,” David said.

Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.