Astronaut finds common ground with Cary students

aspecht@newsobserver.comJanuary 13, 2014 

— For six months last year, there were 250 miles between NASA Commander Chris Cassidy and the students at Davis Drive Middle School.

Monday, Cassidy found common ground with about 400 of them in the school’s auditorium.

“Being an astronaut really reminds me of being a student,” the man in the blue NASA jumpsuit said as he paced the stage.

Cassidy returned from the International Space Station in September after rocketing there to perform maintenance and research experiments. Even for a former Navy SEAL with a master’s degree from MIT, Cassidy said preparing for the voyage made him feel like a student again.

He learned to speak Russian to communicate with Russian cosmonauts. He also trained to work on the station, which involved an emphasis on engineering.

“Math is a huge part of our life up there,” he said.

Principal Karen Summers didn’t hesitate to book Cassidy when she got an email from his cousin, Robert Taylor, who lives in Cary. She wanted to elevate her students’ excitement for math and science – and Cassidy’s presentation seemed to do the trick.

Dozens of students raised their hand every time Cassidy said “Next question.” Many asked about basic daily chores in space, such as eating, cleaning himself and moving around in zero gravity.

Eighth-grader Guna Yorromoreddy said he couldn’t believe the astronauts have only wipes to clean themselves.

“I thought for sure they’d have some way to take a shower,” he said.

Afterward, Guna said Cassidy’s talk elevated his interest in astrophysics. Summers said it was clear the students related to Cassidy.

“At least one of these kids is gonna say, ‘I want to be him. I want to be an astronaut. I’ll buckle down and do what it takes,’” she said.

Then again, Cassidy endeared himself to students by addressing one subject fairly early in his talk: peeing in space.

“Whenever I talk to middle schoolers, I know I gotta be ready to talk about pee and boogers,” he told them.

One student asked him how they use the bathroom while in a space suit. “We wear diapers,” Cassidy said.

Perhaps even more gross, he pointed out, is the fact that all urine collected in the space station goes to a filtration system that turns it into drinking water.

Cassidy connected with students in other ways, too.

He talked about training in a “big swimming pool the size of a gym” to prepare for a world without gravity. One student asked how the astronauts knew when to sleep. Cassidy said the crew operated on Greenwich Mean Time – the time in Britain this time of year. They woke at 6 a.m. and went to bed at 10 p.m.

If you fall asleep in space, your arms will float around, he said.

“I had to zip them up,” Cassidy said.

He described re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere while traveling faster than the speed of sound: “Imagine going five miles per second.” He said they were traveling so fast that he couldn’t even guess an approximate speed, but he could see plasma melting off the shuttle.

Then he described landing back to Earth: “Imagine driving your parents’ car into a brick wall at about 25 mph.”

Back on Earth, he said he couldn’t “walk without wobbling” for three weeks because he lost so much bone density.

And he recalled the Earth’s beauty from space.

“My favorite thing to do was look out the window,” Cassidy said. “Amazing, amazing views.”

The space station is closer to Earth than some might expect, close enough that you can’t see the entire planet at once, Cassidy said. He could see Florida and the Gulf of Mexico at the same time, but California would be out of view.

At night, lights from cities along the Nile would light up the river.

“It was captivating,” he said.

Students said they thought it was cool that Cassidy had no idea what he wanted to do with his life as a middle schooler in Maine.

That made his accomplishments seem “in-reach,” eighth-grader Cole Ammerman said.

“You can be an astronaut or whatever as long as you focus yourself on going down that path,” Cole said.

Specht: 919-460-2608; Twitter: @AndySpecht

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