Spaceflight used to teach perseverance Payload specialist returns to schools after 2nd shuttle trip

'It's nearly all fun,' he says

Students ask Crouch about daily routine during zero gravity

October 30, 1997|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

More than the physics, more than even the fun details of how astronauts eat, sleep and go to the bathroom in space, payload specialist Roger K. Crouch wanted to leave the students of Westminster West Middle School with one important message yesterday.

Never give up on your goal.

Crouch, 57, went up in space twice this spring and summer on the shuttle Columbia. It was the culmination of a childhood dream hatched in a movie theater.

"I'm colorblind, so I could never be a real astronaut," Crouch said, referring to the career crew members who go on several missions.

He got to go by becoming a scientist who specializes in semiconductor materials. He was selected by fellow NASA scientists to go on the mission.

"I tried five times before I was ever picked for this," said Crouch. His age would have ruled him out 30 years ago. Now, the average age of National Aeronautics and Space Administration crew members is older than 40 -- many of them scientists and doctors who go into space to conduct experiments. On his crew of seven, four were scientists whose jobs didn't begin until they were in space.

Crouch lives in Laurel and has spoken to several schools about his mission. But Westminster West Middle and South Carroll High schools, where he spoke in November and returned yesterday, are part of the family.

South Carroll sophomore Tim Novotny and freshman Kim Novotny of Winfield are his wife's nephew and niece. In November, Kim was among the eighth-graders in the audience at West.

The student questions this year were much like those asked of Crouch before he went up in the shuttle: a mix of queries about the mundane details of food and hygiene, and one that goes to the heart of the space program.

"Why do you have to go up in space?" one student asked.

"Well, you don't have to do anything except eat, breathe and pay taxes," Crouch began. "Maybe a better question is why do we want to go in space. I think it's an interesting thing to do. It's challenging. It's a new area.

"I felt like it was 100 years ago, and I was out traveling in a covered wagon," he said, comparing the space station Mir to a pioneer settlement.

"It's advancing science and engineering," Crouch said.

The benefits are often not directly evident to lay people, Crouch said. But in his case, his mission was to see whether the quality of semiconductor materials that run electronic devices could be any better controlled in space.

West Middle science teacher Sam Brutout last year had his students follow Crouch's first mission April 3.

Brutout suffered a stroke May 3 and has not returned to work, but he attended yesterday for Crouch's visit. Brutout, who is mostly recovered, said he recently took a stress test -- a new computerized test that was refined for the space program.

Crouch's first mission in April had to be aborted after three days because a fuel cell malfunctioned. The seven-member crew went up again July 1 for 16 days.

Brutout said his classes followed the mission with much more interest than students in the past several years have had in the space program.

In the early part of his 28 years of teaching, Brutout said, the space program was emerging and children were much more interested. Many of his students had parents who worked for Westinghouse Electric Corp. or other contractors that were involved in it.

"Everything was so new," Brutout said of those days. "In today's age, the shuttle is pretty much commonplace. Today's students take these things more or less for granted because NASA was so good at it."

But when Crouch came to visit, it all became more real for them, Brutout said.

Crouch's love and enthusiasm for the space program is contagious. "In my mind, it's nearly all fun," he said.

What interests students most of all are the quirky aspects of space travel, such as what they eat, Crouch said, so he comes prepared with vacuum-packed food packets, such as beef and mushrooms.

"You put it on a soft tortilla, and it's almost edible," Crouch said. "This is cauliflower with cheese sauce. You put some water in there, push it around a little bit and warm it up and it's actually pretty good."

He described opening a package of fish-shaped crackers and watching them disperse in the zero-gravity environment. He and the other astronauts floated around after them, catching the bites in their mouths.

But in any school, and in any grade, the crowd-pleaser subject is the logistics of using the bathroom in zero gravity, Crouch said.

For example, you can't so much as spit out toothpaste without catching it in a tissue. He matter-of-factly described the facilities, including a toilet seat designed to create a vacuum seal when the astronaut sits on it, strapped down "to avoid disaster."

Pub Date: 10/30/97

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