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Astronauts Encourage Students to Enter Astronomy

A U.S. astronaut says students should set their sights high when thinking about a career. Mike O'Sullivan reports from Los Angeles, astronaut Marsha Ivins says an expanding space program will offer opportunities for a new generation of students.

Ms. Ivins has been in space five times, aboard the space shuttles Columbia and Atlantis, and the international space station. On a 1997 Atlantis flight, she and her crewmates also docked with the Russian space station Mir. Now, Ms. Ivins heads the exploration branch of the astronaut office at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

She says she knew from childhood that she wanted to be an astronaut, but got little support from her teachers.

"My school system actively worked to discourage me from wanting to go to engineering school or be an astronaut," she noted. "It just wasn't what women did. And so they were no help at all. And today the school system is very much better. They're open-minded to whatever potential a kid wants to try to exercise, and I think that's great."

Ms. Ivins is motivating students to consider space careers through the Explorer Schools Program, operated by the U.S. space agency NASA.

She stopped by the Nestle Avenue Elementary School in suburban Los Angeles to share her experiences. Dramatic pictures from space drew excited oohs and aahs, and Audelia, 11, was surprised to learn the details of reaching the moon.

"How can you actually go to the moon with all that fuel and come back to earth with the little fuel in your spaceship engine? That's surprising, that you could actually go all of the way there and then come all the way back," she said.

Shelby, 10, was also surprised, by pictures of NASA's early spacecraft.

"I kind of thought it was surprising how the first space satellites and capsules looked, because they're very different from the ones that we have now," she said.

Students were also fascinated by the details of life in space. Ms. Ivins explained that astronauts wash their faces in a weightless atmosphere by maneuvering bubbles of water. She said they face a challenge in brushing their teeth. The first time she spit out toothpaste, for example, it floated onto her forehead. She says astronauts use a simulator to learn to use a bathroom in zero gravity. She confides that NASA engineers have devised a suction hose and funnel to deal with that problem.

"It's harder to put your clothes on when there's no gravity or wash your face or brush your teeth or go to the bathroom, whatever," explained Ms. Ivins. "And so people think about that and it's interesting to them, and so by way of being interesting, it's also educational."

She says the students at events like these are surprisingly attentive.

"I gave a talk to a group of third graders, and they were all very silent, very quiet, and very polite," she added. "And then I found out from parents afterwards that they repeated my whole talk verbatim when they got home. Mom, the moon is not white. It's actually gray. Everything. So they absorb a whole lot more than they let on."

Principal Alan O'Hara is excited that NASA has chosen his school for the special partnership that exposes students to the wonders of space. This event, with the visit by an astronaut, marked the inauguration of the program at his school.

"Our children are very enthusiastic," he said. "Tonight we have a star party where parents are invited, and we have very large telescopes and the NASA team brought their own telescopes. So it's going to be a great night. We have almost a full moon, so we've got a great view of the moon, and we're going to look at Mars too, because that's NASA's goal right now, is to get over onto Mars."

And as NASA focuses its efforts on returning to the moon, creating a permanent base there and then traveling on to Mars, astronaut Marsha Ivins says opportunities will expand to pursue a career like hers, as an astronaut involved in space exploration.