School visitor inspires reaching for stars

Posted: Friday, December 12, 2003

If NASA is worried about future generations' preparedness for space exploration, it needs only to look to Kalifornsky Beach Ele-mentary School.

In a district where almost every child has visited the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska, where one teacher is contending for a position as a teacher-astronaut, and where science and math curriculum focus heavily on space, students are more than a little interested in NASA's work.

"Of all the classes I've ever been in, you probably know more about this stuff," astronaut Bill Oeferlein told a group of fourth- and sixth-graders during a visit to K-Beach Elementary School on Wednesday.

Oferlein, in a trip sponsored by ConocoPhillips, toured a handful of Kenai Peninsula Borough School District schools this week, making stops at K-Beach Elementary on Wednesday, as well as Nikolaevsk School and Chapman Elementary School on Thursday.

Though Oeferlein's trip got off to a rough start his flight from Anchorage to Kenai was delayed by weather Wednesday the pause only served to heighten student anticipation. By the time he entered the K-Beach gym in his blue jumpsuit Wednesday, students were cheering ecstatically. And it seemed most kids wanted nothing more than a chance to get closer to an American legend.

Oeferlein has yet to make a space flight himself. He was scheduled for a mission in July, but due to the Columbia disaster, all missions have been placed on hold.

Still, the Anchorage-raised man is Alaska's first astronaut and a hero to many of the students. Throughout his presentation, students crept from the gymnasium bleachers to the floor, edging ever closer to Oeferlein. They crowded around him for handshakes.

And, it seemed, everyone had a question:

"What's it like to be an astronaut?"

"Why is it important to work out in space?"

"What's zero-gravity like?"

Oeferlein took time to answer the questions: Being an astronaut is "fun, but a lot of work;" it's important to work out because muscle and bone density deteriorate in zero-gravity conditions; and zero-gravity is like simultaneously floating and falling.

He also had other information to present to the students. Equipped with a bag full of visual aids, Oeferlein displayed space food and the velcro-laden tray on which it is served, as well as the sleeping restraints astronauts must use to avoid floating around the shuttle in their sleep. He projected videos of a space launch and the international space station and pictures from space, including his favorite picture of Anchorage.

He also talked to students about the process of becoming an astronaut.

For Oeferlein, the journey to space started with a simple love of hunting and fishing in Alaska.

"Up here, one of the best ways to get around is to fly airplanes," he said. "Eventually, that led me to pursue a career flying."

He joined the U.S. Navy, where he flew fighter jets for about 10 years before joining NASA. Since then, he's spent another five and a half years training and preparing for a mission.

"When we went to NASA, do you think we hopped right in the shuttles and took them for a flight?" he asked students, receiving a resounding "no."

"No, the first thing we did was start going to class," he said.

Training for his job includes everything from classroom instruction and tests to simulator practice to field trips, he told the students.

His job also includes teaching younger generations about NASA and the work of astronauts, so that they, too, might pursue a career in space.

"About 400 people have been into space so far," he told the students. "Hopefully, in our lifetime, that number will reach the thousands. It could even be some of you guys."

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