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Nigerian teen ready to soar to zero gravity

Program expands access to space

LAGOS, Nigeria -- Seventeen-year-old 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 she 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 aircraft, which will soar 6 miles above the Earth before dropping, giving about a half-minute of weightlessness with each cycle.

``I feel like I'm an ambassador," she said in an interview Tuesday, a day before departing for the United States.

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 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.

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