Flag returns from trip to space Astronaut carried school's emblem on shuttle voyage

December 11, 1997|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

The school flag for Forest Ridge Elementary in North Laurel was out of this world.

Not because of its fairly typical royal blue and red design.

But because this flag has traveled on a NASA space shuttle mission 180 miles above the Earth at speeds topping 17,000 mph.

Courtesy of astronaut Roger Crouch, that flag is back at the Howard County school to hang in the front office and inspire youngsters' imaginations about distant galaxies and careers that could take them there.

"[The shuttle flight] was the most fun thing I ever did in my life," Crouch, a physicist, told some 400 third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students when he returned to the school yesterday morning.

"It was absolutely incredible, a wonderful thing," he said of his mission that began July 1 and ended 16 days later. "If you ever get a chance to do it, you should."

Crouch first spoke at the school in May 1996, more than a year before his flight. He eventually spoke at 15 schools, discussing his trip, but it was only Forest Ridge that got the offer to send a memento into space, making it one of a handful of schools nationwide that had items aboard the

mission.

"I was so impressed with you guys when I was here before," Crouch told the students yesterday. "I thought I'd do something special for you."

As Crouch unfurled the flag, dominated by Eddie the Eagle, the school mascot, students cheered and wriggled in their seats.

Crouch also brought a certificate to verify that the flag is, so to speak, well-traveled.

Although NASA officials don't keep exact count, several thousand items have been brought into space on the 87 shuttle flights and the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions.

Space and weight restrictions for the shuttle dictate that each astronaut bring no more than 10 personal items from family members and 10 from other people or organizations, according to Margie Keller of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, who oversees the items brought into space.

The items must be small: flags and banners no bigger than 3 by 5 feet. No big books, glass or wood, corporate or religious items were allowed. (The flights are federally funded and must not be used to raise money or promote a product or a faith, say NASA officials)

Most astronauts bring tiny mementos -- medallions, decals, patches -- often from their alma maters.

Crouch, who lives in Laurel, brought pumpkin seeds from his hometown of Jamestown, Tenn., which has an annual Giant Pumpkin Weigh-off contest.

The list of items must be submitted for approval two months before each flight and the items turned over a month ahead of time to be packaged in pink plastic shrink-wrap and stored away, Keller said.

Although people often request that items be photographed while they are in space, NASA does not permit them to be taken out during the flight, she said.

"If they had all these items out," Keller said, "they'd be floating around everywhere."

At Forest Ridge yesterday, once the flag was unfurled and Crouch given a school sweat shirt and an Eddie the Eagle doll, all attention turned to the shuttle mission itself.

"Was it scary?" one student wanted to know. "Was it too hot or too cold up there?"

Crouch, 57, who went in space to conduct scientific experiments in zero gravity, showed slides and a video of the mission, his second. His first flight in April was cut short after three days because of technical problems.

He described eating, bathing, exercising and working in space. Everything has a piece of fabric fastener attached so it won't float away, he said.

Similar devices restrain the astronauts when they're using the restroom.

"There are even hooks that go over your legs to hold you in place while you're doing your business," Crouch said, sparking giggles from the crowd.

Fifth-grade student Nikolett Varsa said she enjoyed Crouch's visit.

"You can learn more about the world around you," she said.

"I would like to live in space someday," she added. "Then you can float around and fly to another person's house."

Said her classmate, Clarence Landers, "I thought Mr. Crouch was great. When he goes back up, I want to go with him."

Pub Date: 12/11/97

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