PITTSFIELD, Maine — Weightlessly whirling around the Earth in outer space at 17,500 mph may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for U.S. Navy Capt. Stephen Bowen, a Massachusetts native, it was a dream that came early.
In the sixth grade, Bowen was captured in a photograph that showed a chubby, crew-cut youngster in a navy-and-yellow-striped rugby shirt. He already was captivated by the space race, having entered a U.S. Postal Service contest for a stamp design showing the Apollo-Sawyer’s space program.
“I didn’t win,” he said.
That little boy bore little resemblance to the handsome, fit, self-confident astronaut who spoke to students at Maine Central Institute on Tuesday.
Bowen told the students that while in the sixth grade, he was in the class’s lowest reading group. He persevered and moved up to the highest group. “What that taught me is that if you have an area of studies you are not good in, maybe that is where you need to focus,” Bowen said.
Developing his reading skills enabled Bowen to attend the U.S. Naval Academy, spend 14 years in the submarine service and, in 2000, to be selected as the first submarine officer chosen as a NASA mission specialist.
Using dramatic film footage, Bowen described the launch of the STS-126 Endeavor on Nov. 14, 2008, its mission while in space and docked with the space station, and its return to Earth 16 days later.
“You could actually feel the sound,” he recalled, adding, “The views from orbit are indescribable.”
During his journey, Bowen completed 250 orbits for more than 6 million miles and delivered equipment, supplies and a new astronaut to the space station. He also completed three spacewalks.
Bowen stressed the idea of working as a team, saying that 40,000 people work on a single space mission’s development and execution.
Astronauts are regular people, Bowen maintained, showing slides of fellow mission members riding bikes, at the beach or holding a pair of baby ducks. In Bowen’s case, he is a dad with a ballerina daughter, Gillian Bowen, who attends Maine Central Institute and the Bossov Ballet Theater.
Bowen watched her father’s launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla. On Tuesday, she admitted that she was frightened for her father for the entire mission. “But the scariest part was definitely the launch,” she said. She admitted that it was “a little weird” to have her father speaking to her fellow students and signing autographs afterward, but said, “I am so proud of him.”
Capt. Bowen said it was important to continue the space program, which he said receives less than 1 percent of the total U.S. budget.
“It seems like the money is spent in space but it is really spent here on Earth,” he said, using as examples the Internet, cell phones, cordless drills and medical advances.
“A society that stops exploring is a society that stops progressing,” he said.