Atlantis space shuttle crew visits Aviano schools
AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy — Students whose parents work for the 31st Fighter Wing are used to watching jets soar into the sky. On Friday, a group of elementary students got to meet some really high fliers: The astronauts who flew the last U.S. space shuttle mission wrapped up a tour of U.S. military facilities in Turkey and Italy with visits to Aviano schools.
“While you were enjoying your summer vacation, we were busy up in space,” Chris Ferguson, commander of the Atlantis shuttle flight told students gathered at an assembly of third- to fifth-graders, most of whon raised their hands when asked if they wanted to be astronauts.
Fifth-grade aspiring astronaut Julia Gabel got to talk with crewmember Sandy Magnus and got all four crewmembers to sign her book.
“She’s going to be an astronaut one day,” Magnus told Ferguson.
Students asked questions, including how the toilet situation works (it’s complicated), if they can see the moon from up there (yes) and do you have to go to college to become an astronaut (most definitely yes).
Ferguson, a former Navy F-14 pilot, said answering such questions and meeting the public is part of the job. After flying back to Houston, Magnus – a civilian – and Doug Hurley – an active duty Marine F/A-18 pilot –will travel north to make an appearance at a NASCAR race. Ferguson and Rex Walheim – a former Air Force officer – will get a few days off.
Now that the space shuttle mission has ended, the astronaut program is in a state of flux, Ferguson said. After reaching its high point with 149 astronauts in 1998, it’s down to 60 now and has been “decreasing rapidly,” he said.
It’s not that astronauts don’t believe in NASA or the space program, he said. For pilots like himself, riding to the International Space Station on a Russian space ship is not the same. Still, he said he fully supports NASA and the continued exploration of space.
“It’s very hard to go and present the case that we have to go to Mars when the country is $14 trillion in debt,” he said. “It’s a hard thing, because it takes years for these things to happen, and politicians and people want quick results.”
If the students at Aviano were voting, however …