Shuttle pilot urges students in Mars Hill to reach for stars

Posted March 09, 2009, at 8:56 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 13, 2011, at 11 a.m.

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — There’s no place like space.

That’s the message NASA astronaut Pam Melroy shared with area students Tuesday during presentations at the Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone and the Central Aroostook Junior-Senior High School in Mars Hill.

Melroy, a space shuttle pilot and commander who made the trip to northern Maine as a guest of the University of Maine at Presque Isle’s Distinguished Lecturer Series, delivered presentations to students from Limestone, Easton and Mars Hill and also gave an evening community lecture at UMPI.

Melroy, 47, a retired Air Force colonel, is NASA’s only female shuttle commander on active duty, and she is the second female shuttle commander in NASA’s history after Eileen Collins, who retired from the agency in 2006.

Melroy never mentioned these claims to fame when talking with area students. Instead, she focused on what it’s like to be an astronaut and the future of space travel.

To become an astronaut takes years of study, training and practice, and a very large pool, she said. Astronauts practice their spacewalks in the world’s largest pool, which contains a giant mock-up of the international space station. When she and her team prepared for her most recent mission to space in 2007, they spent weeks training together and even took a sea kayaking voyage to Alaska to bond as a team.

Once in space, she said, the crew’s job was to install equipment that would help to provide more power to the international space station. The crew ran into problems after they found a tear in the solar array panel. With help from ground control, they were able to devise a solution that involved some of Melroy’s crew members taking part in a seven-hour spacewalk to “stitch up” the tear. Melroy reported that the solar array now is producing full power for the space station.

“It’s hard to launch space shuttles. It’s hard to build space stations,” Melroy said after the presentation. “It takes smart, passionate, dedicated people to make all these things happen. And that’s one of the most exciting parts of the job.”

That and the electric blues and vivid reds of a sunrise seen from space. Or the feeling of working in microgravity. Or thinking about the future of space travel. And that, she said, could involve any of the students in the audience.

Melroy said NASA plans to send humans on a mission to Mars in 25 years. Right now, she said, small rovers are on the Red Planet exploring the surface and determining the best places for a landing.

“There is some student out there right now between the ages of 5 and 25 who will be the first person on Mars,” she said to the crowd of students, “and it could be you.”

Melroy said it’s her hope that students come away from her talk with the idea that “if she can do it, I can, too.”

The astronaut said she has known ever since she was a child that she wanted to travel to space. She was almost 8 when the first moon landing occurred. She said that by the time of the last moon landing, in 1972, she had decided she wanted to be an astronaut.

To make that dream happen, she studied physics and astronomy and later earth and planetary science in college. She became a military jet test pilot, then the most direct route to becoming an astronaut.

Since joining NASA in 1995, Melroy has logged more than 900 hours (38 days) in space and completed three space missions. She served as the pilot for a 13-day flight in 2000 aboard the space shuttle Discovery and a 10-day flight in 2002 aboard Atlantis. She was the shuttle commander for the 2007 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery.

She hopes she is helping to instill her passion for space in the next generation.

“It’s incredibly important for me to connect with students and have them walk away with the idea that they can do it, too, and that they believe in themselves,” she said.

If the students from Mars Hill are any indication, Melroy’s point has been taken.

“She definitely made me change my mind about what I want to be when I grow up, and now that I’ve heard her talk, I really think I can do it,” Lacey Marie Bradstreet, a 17-year-old junior from Central Aroostook High School said. “This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me.”

Rachel Rice is employed by the University of Maine at Presque Isle. She wrote this story exclusively for the Bangor Daily News.

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