Life-in-space talk provokes laughs, career ambition at Point Pleasant COUNTYWIDE

November 26, 1992|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,Staff Writer

He could have had them eating freeze-dried mixed vegetables out of his hand.

The fourth- and fifth-graders at Point Pleasant Elementary School laughed, screamed, hooted and hollered -- and even learned a few things -- as Ronald P. Ernst gave them an introduction to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration on Wednesday.

They went wild when fourth-grade teacher Terry Brown, who had contacted NASA this fall, stepped into the sleep restraint, an astronaut's version of a bed, and Mr. Ernst strapped her head to the pillow.

And they couldn't stop laughing when Mr. Ernst, explaining the concepts of low gravity, told them what happened to the astronaut who burped while not holding onto a stationary object: "It's like having your own private rocket. The burp went that way," he said pointing in one direction, "the astronaut went that way," he said, motioning the opposite way.

Between burps and upset stomachs, the astronauts no longer take soda on shuttle trips.

Mr. Ernst is one of five space teachers -- NASA calls them aerospace education specialists -- at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt. They visit schools in nine northeastern states, fueling children with The Right Stuff. Each space flight center operates such a program, with 35 teachers scattered around the nation.

Mr. Ernst showed the youngsters a model of the Osprey, the airplane capable of vertical takeoff and landing, still in the testing stages. They gasped as he turned the engines upward, making the plane look like a mutant helicopter.

And he talked about the X-30, the national aerospace plane expected to take 30 years to develop.

Tucked among all the model rockets was a message: "It's your future," Mr. Ernst said. "Dreams do come true. Stay in school."

The fourth grade will study a unit on space in the spring, Ms. Brown said.

But it was fifth-grader Harry Rey who asked that inevitable question, the one that Mr. Ernst answers at nearly each of the 200 or so schools he visits every year: "How do you go to the bathroom in space?"

The other children giggled, but then became hushed to catch the answer. The space shuttle has one toilet, called a waste management system, that uses air instead of water to move the waste. The astronaut is strapped onto the commode so that he or she doesn't float up, up and away, and create a mess.

Fifth-grader Debbie Gustafson tried on an Apollo spacesuit.

"It was heavy and I got uncomfortable," she said. She is not planning a career as an astronaut.

But fellow fifth-grader Gary Browning may be. He pronounced the program "pretty cool. I'm thinking about being a pilot or an astronaut."

He will have to wait. NASA does not take children on shuttle missions.

"Kids don't clean their rooms, and we don't want the place a mess," Mr. Ernst said.

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