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Space Shuttle Atlantis crewmember Sandy Magnus talks with Julia Gabel, a fifth-grader at Aviano Elementary School during the four-member crew's visit to Aviano Air Base on Friday. The astronauts are heading back to the States after visiting U.S. bases in Italy and Turkey the past two weeks.
Space Shuttle Atlantis crewmember Sandy Magnus talks with Julia Gabel, a fifth-grader at Aviano Elementary School during the four-member crew's visit to Aviano Air Base on Friday. The astronauts are heading back to the States after visiting U.S. bases in Italy and Turkey the past two weeks. (Kent Harris/Stars and Stripes)
Space Shuttle Atlantis crewmember Sandy Magnus talks with Julia Gabel, a fifth-grader at Aviano Elementary School during the four-member crew's visit to Aviano Air Base on Friday. The astronauts are heading back to the States after visiting U.S. bases in Italy and Turkey the past two weeks.
Space Shuttle Atlantis crewmember Sandy Magnus talks with Julia Gabel, a fifth-grader at Aviano Elementary School during the four-member crew's visit to Aviano Air Base on Friday. The astronauts are heading back to the States after visiting U.S. bases in Italy and Turkey the past two weeks. (Kent Harris/Stars and Stripes)
Sandy Magnus, one of the four crewmembers aboard the last U.S. space shuttle mission in July, answers a question Friday at Aviano Elementary School. The astronauts have toured U.S. bases in Turkey and Italy for the past two weeks and are headed back to the States, where they'll continue to promote NASA to the American public.
Sandy Magnus, one of the four crewmembers aboard the last U.S. space shuttle mission in July, answers a question Friday at Aviano Elementary School. The astronauts have toured U.S. bases in Turkey and Italy for the past two weeks and are headed back to the States, where they'll continue to promote NASA to the American public. (Kent Harris/Stars and Stripes)
The last crew of the Space Shuttle Atlantis - Chris Ferguson, Rex Walheim, Sandy Magnus and Doug Hurley - laugh at mixed response after Ferguson asked if students at Aviano Elementary School were glad to be back in class after summer vacation.
The last crew of the Space Shuttle Atlantis - Chris Ferguson, Rex Walheim, Sandy Magnus and Doug Hurley - laugh at mixed response after Ferguson asked if students at Aviano Elementary School were glad to be back in class after summer vacation. (Kent Harris/Stars and Stripes)

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 …

harrisk@estripes.osd.mil

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