Scottish School Kids take a Small Step for Man
On the launch pad a space shuttle weighs over a thousand tons. They have roughly the same aerodynamic grace as a skip, and flying them is the hardest task in the air force, even harder than carrier landings. Last week - after agonising delays - the shuttle Discovery successfully took off on the 115th shuttle mission. It did so despite a known safety problem which could have destroyed it. Of the five operational shuttles built by NASA, two have been lost.
A week before Discovery's launch, a delegation of astronauts and scientists from NASA took a slightly less hazardous trip to Scotland. They were here as part of the "Careers Scotland Space School". This remarkable programme involves top NASA personnel visiting schools to inspire the children to study science. I caught up with them at a party in Glasgow. They were relaxing at the end of a busy few weeks. The beers were passed round, whilst in the kitchen, a pair of old-timers banged out country and folk tunes on the guitar.
Lieutenant-Colonel Duane Carey looks like an air force test pilot should. He has a lean handsome face and his hair is cropped in a precision crew-cut that couldn't be straighter if it was done with a spirit level and set-square. But his strong-set jaw carries an easy-going smile.
He didn't come from a traditional military background. He started out as a "motorcycle bum". Then he decided to follow his dreams and become a pilot - but first he had to go back to school. He was offered a place in an Air Force college, but they told him he'd have to give up the bike. He turned them down, and attended the local state university instead. After completing a degree in engineering, he did join the Air Force, qualifying as a test-pilot. This culminated in becoming an astronaut, and piloting the shuttle on a mission to repair the Hubble space telescope. Perhaps more than most, he appreciates that education is a vital key to achieving your dreams. He's still a keen biker, as are his wife and two children. Except now his biking trips are to schools where he gives guest lectures on the importance of learning.
The Scottish Space School is now in its fifth year. This year for the first time the astronauts were joined by a pair of Russian cosmonauts. Aleksander Lazutkin has an impressive moustache and a friendly if slightly unfocused smile. The former gymnast was an engineer aboard the Mir Space Station in 1997 when a resupply vessel collided with it. He realised that there was an air leak - feeling the reducing pressure in his ears. The crew retreated to a safe part of the station whilst Aleksander sealed off the damaged section. Afterward he noticed that his hands were shaking. He describes quite wonderfully that he was so scared he didn't realise that was why his hands were shaking. Shortly afterward the station lost power as it receded around the night side of the Earth. The silence and darkness were unlike anything he had ever experienced. As he gazed down at the dim lights of the earth shining up from the surface, he contemplated his dire situation and thought, "This is not so bad, I'm still alive".
In the kitchen, the impromptu band launch into a rendition of Hotel California. The guitar players are Alex Blackwood and Neal Pellis. The first is an executive in Careers Scotland - the Head of Enterprise in Education - and the latter was the chief scientist for the International Space Station and is now head of NASA's biotech research. The Scottish Space School came about largely through their friendship. Neither can remember the words to Hotel California.
Space travel conjures up a heady mix of wonder and adrenalin. Every young boy dreams of being an astronaut. Meeting a real live astronaut is almost as good as meeting a real live dinosaur. Later in the year, a chosen few students will go to America for some astronaut training at a NASA summer camp. Alex Blackwood said "Rarely do young people have the chance to meet individuals who have achieved their dreams. The NASA Scientists are truly motivational and help pupils understand the important role of science and technology in the world today."
For shuttle pilot Duane Carey it is not about science - valuable though that is - but about frontiers. He supports the plans - by NASA and others - to continue manned space exploration inspite of the costs. "One of the most vital roles that government can play is to give its citizens a chance to be great." Space travel inspires a "soul-deep sense of awe and wonder" that helps define who we are. "A people that looks only inward shall stagnate and stop progressing. A people that looks outward shall thrive and flourish."
© Daniel Winterstein 1998-2008
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