Astronauts land on familiar ground

Homecoming: Three Atlantis crew members with local ties talk about their historic shuttle mission.

March 27, 2001|By Michael Stroh | By Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

Fresh from their successful mission to the International Space Station, the crew of the space shuttle Atlantis -- including three Baltimore-area natives -- landed at the Maryland Science Center yesterday and got a rock star reception.

"This is cool," gushed Eric Miles, an eighth-grader at Francis Scott Key Elementary-Middle School. He was among the hundreds of young admirers angling for autographs, snapping pictures and asking what it was like to go into space.

Here's what was on their young minds: Where did you sleep? ("On the ceiling," said one astronaut.) What did you eat? (Freeze-dried crab soup.) What happens to your body when you go into space? (Your nose gets stuffed up, "kind of like you have a cold," another astronaut said.)

The Atlantis crew pulled off one of the trickiest missions yet to the International Space Station last month -- attaching the 28-foot-long Destiny science laboratory to the growing station. The $1.4 billion U.S.-built lab gives researchers the ability to run two dozen simultaneous scientific experiments.

The mission was closely watched in Maryland not only because of its importance but also because three crew members -- Thomas D. Jones, Robert L. Curbeam and Marsha S. Ivins -- were born in Baltimore. According to National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials, it was the first time so many astronauts on the same mission where born in the same state -- let alone city.

"There's no experience better than looking down on your own hometown from space ... seeing the people that you love," Jones recalled yesterday.

The two crew members who were not locals -- mission commander Kenneth D. Cockrell and pilot Mark L. Polansky -- got a little good-natured ribbing from officials who turned out to greet the astronauts yesterday. ("I want to thank NASA for allowing two non-Baltimoreans to go on this flight," Mayor Martin O'Malley said jokingly.)

During their visit, the astronauts presented the governor, mayor and others with souvenirs from space -- including a state and city flag that traveled the 5 million-mile trip and came with a NASA certificate of authenticity to prove it.

O'Malley, in turn, gave the astronauts a book on Baltimore. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a NASA booster who plans to push for better space cuisine, gave each astronaut a can of Old Bay seasoning.

So many officials -- including Gov. Parris N. Glendening, U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings and Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes -- lined up to speak that it seemed the kids were learning more about statecraft than spacecraft. Organizers were forced to hurry the astronauts through question-and-answer time with students.

After answering questions about their eating and sleeping habits, a little girl asked: "Doesn't it ever get just, like, boring?"

The astronauts, dressed in blue NASA polo shirts, simultaneously shook their heads no and chuckled. Being an astronaut is a lot of hard work, they said. Their days were filled with construction jobs and other tasks.

They encouraged the students to dream big and study hard. The three local astronauts spent plenty of time in school.

Jones, who grew up in Essex and graduated from Kenwood High School, went to the Air Force Academy and became a B-52 pilot before receiving a doctorate in planetary science.

Curbeam went to Woodlawn High School and the Naval Academy. He became a Navy pilot and earned a master's degree in aeronautical engineering.

Ivins was born in Baltimore but moved with her family to Wallingford, Pa., when she was an infant. She earned a bachelor's degree in aerospace engineering at the University of Colorado.

The shuttle crew gave students the first glimpse of a video documenting the trip. The video, shot through the spacecraft's portholes and with cameras mounted on the astronauts' heads, left the audience in awe -- and in some cases queasy from the crazy camera angles. The video, shown on the IMAX screen, showed off memorable moments of the voyage: While sailing more than 200 miles above Earth, Jones and Curbeam went on three spacewalks to connect Destiny's plumbing, electrical and data lines to the station. The film ended with a scene of the shuttle landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

After a visit to the Maryland General Assembly this morning, the astronauts are scheduled to tour Chinquapin Middle School. Later this week, they will visit the White House. Curbeam and Jones will then return to the Baltimore area and speak to students at their former high schools.

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