Friday 19 August 2011

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Zoe P. Strassfield: Special Edition: Inside, Outside, Who Cares?

What does it mean to finish your internship at NASA HQ and come home? It means no more riding the Metro, no more hoping you might accidentally end up riding the elevator with Lori Garver, no more walking to the Air and Space Museum after work. But it also means getting to see your family again, sleep in your own bed, and have lots of time to relax in your hometown.

Sure, sure, I miss being “inside” and all of those cool experiences that came with it, but there’s plenty of fun to be had on the “outside”, too- just being an ordinary fan and following missions on TV and the web. After all, I’d been “outside” for all but five weeks of my life as a space fan.

So when my friend Erin told me that the crew of the final space shuttle mission, STS-135 Atlantis, would be appearing at the American Museum of Natural History on Tuesday, I thought it sounded like the perfect opportunity for some good old-fashioned “outside fan” fun.

Even though I had to wake up rather earlier than I was used to for a summer morning, my father and I were some of the first people to arrive at the Rose Center’s entrance before the museum opened. While we were waiting in line, we ran into two extremely cute little girls who were there with their aunt. The younger girl was a big geology fan, while her big sister was into marine biology and had the plush manatee to prove it, as well as the engineering smarts to quickly diagnose and fix her broken umbrella with minimal outside help. It’s always a lot of fun to meet young girls with such an interest in science. I think they’ll go far.

Once the doors opened, my father and I snagged seats in the front row and saved one for Erin. The bus she was in was running slow, but she still managed to arrive before the presentation started. The museum’s Director of Astrophysics gave an introduction, and when he announced the astronauts, everybody got hyper-excited. We were applauding, but at the same time, looking every which way trying to spot them.

There! On the stairs from the upper level, four people in khaki pants and black button-down shirts embroidered with the mission patch! And then, as they got closer, the faces I remembered from the news! The applause continued as they made their way to the stage and sat down.

Chris “Fergie” Ferguson, the flight’s commander, started off by introducing the crew and the mission they had preformed- delivering a multipurpose storage module to the International Space Station! Doug Hurley, the pilot, had helped him. (To roughly analogize it to an airplane- a space shuttle “pilot” is actually more like the co-pilot, while the shuttle commander is like the pilot or captain.) Erin and I were especially excited to see Sandra Magnus, the first Mission Specialist, because we’d met her the year before at the World Science Festival. While the other Mission Specialist, Rex Walheim, was a spacewalk expert, he hadn’t had to go outside on this flight.

The film about the mission that they played was really great- it even included one of my favorite songs- “Countdown” by the Canadian band Rush. (I sung along quietly.) The video recapped the shuttle program, offering the very appropriate Dr. Seuss quote “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened”, and ending, most fittingly, with the words “The Adventure Continues…”

While Erin and I didn’t get picked to ask questions, some of the students who did had very clever queries, like what kind of germs there are in space (No known native ones, but Earth germs divide and grown faster, which means in-space tests of a medicine allow for a quicker assessment of how effective it is at killing germs), and what foods they liked best while in space (Hurley’s was shrimp cocktail, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. He ate so much he thought he might turn into a shrimp.)

After the questions, we jumped in line to get autographs. I had been hoping I’d get to add Ferguson, Hurley, and Walheim to my astronaut hug list, but since they were just behind the table signing and a lot of other people were in line, it would have been awkward, so I decided to settle for getting autographs.

“Thank you for being awesome!” Erin told Commander Ferguson.

“Well, thank you, but I don’t know if ‘awesome’ is the right word.” He replied.

“Don’t say that, you are awesome.” I interjected.

We went down the table getting the signatures, and freaked out because Magnus remembered us! Even though there wasn’t time for conversations or hugs, all of the astronauts were very kind to us. We walked away with signed crew photos to check out the planetarium. Inside, outside, I didn’t care, I was still having a blast.

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