Astronaut gives students down-to-earth advice

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Chris Ferguson started off as &uot;an average guy who dreamed of being a duck farmer.&uot; He ended up an astronaut.

&uot;I’m one person with a big dream,&uot; he told an auditorium full of King’s Fork Middle School sixth- and seventh-graders Tuesday afternoon. In July, the seven-year NASA veteran will take his first trip to space, visiting the in-progress International Space Station.

Ferguson and Congressman Randy Forbes, who had visited Western Branch Intermediate early in the day, came to Fork to spread awareness, and hopefully inspiration about education.

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&uot;We need more scientists,&uot; said Forbes, a member of both Congress’ science committee and subcommittee on space travel. &uot;This will hopefully inspire students to get involved in math, science and engineering.

&uot;I get to go to work in the most powerful building in the world, the U.S. Capitol,&uot; Forbes told the crowd. &uot;The reason for that is that I had principals, teachers and other who helped me. Chris and I each had a dream; his was to be a part of NASA, and only a handful of people get picked for that program. The only person who can snatch your dream away is you.&uot;

Ferguson’s journey into space started off a bit lower.

&uot;The reason that I joined (the Navy) is because I liked life at sea,&uot; said the captain. &uot;Living on an air carrier was an exciting experience. When I was young, I didn’t tell people that I wanted to be an astronaut, because they’d laugh at me.&uot;

On his third try, he was finally accepted as an astronaut.

&uot;The lesson I learned was that persistence pays off,&uot; he said.

His presentation began with an overview of the space shuttle, which travel about 17,500 mph.

&uot;You could get to Washington, D.C. from Suffolk in about five minutes!&uot; he joked.

The spacecraft weighs 4.5 million pounds at launch, he told his young audience.

He talked about what it’s like to bathe and use the bathroom in space, and handed out small food packets, filled with tasty items such as potatoes, scrambled eggs and crackers.

&uot;I liked feeling the food,&uot; said sixth-grader Matt Haberman. &uot;It was kind of strange. I think it would be gross to eat it.&uot;

Photos of astronauts asleep in zero-gravity peaked Trevan Williams’ attention.

&uot;I didn’t know how they slept,&uot; said the sixth-grader. &uot;I didn’t know if they slept on the ceiling or on the floor.&uot;

Williams’ classmates asked Ferguson about space travel. One asked if it was easy to lose things on a shuttle, and Ferguson answered in the affirmative.

&uot;If you drop something here,&uot; he said. &uot;It goes down. If you drop it on the space shuttle, it can go anywhere.&uot;

Another asked what would happen if an astronaut went into space without a space suit.

&uot;Not much would happen to the outside of the body,&uot; Ferguson said. &uot;Maybe some spots would appear on the skin, but all the air would be expelled from inside.&uot;

The hardest part of staying in space is staying ready to come back, he continued.

&uot;When you’re in zero-gravity and not using your bones, they start to decalcify because your body figures it doesn’t need calcium anymore,&uot; he said &uot;We have to run on treadmills and lift a form of weights for two hours a day to stay in shape.&uot;

Next summer, he’ll hop aboard the STS 115 to deliver a truss segment to the space station to give it more power.

Ferguson, who was well-acquainted with all seven astronauts who died in the Feb. 2003 space shuttle Columbia disaster – including attending Navy Flight School with Capt. William McCool about two decades ago – said he was ready.

&uot;I’ve been flying for 20 years,&uot; he said. &uot;We all know that there are calculated risks, but the benefits far exceed the risks.&uot;

Those are some risks that sixth-grader Chelsea Parker would like to take someday.

&uot;It just seems fun,&uot; she said of becoming an astronaut. &uot;I want to go to Mars and the moon.&uot;