At Thunder Hill Elementary, an astronaut's firsthand account

January 28, 2003

Astronaut Neil W. Woodward III visited Thunder Hill Elementary School on Wednesday at the invitation of his cousin, Cindy Cockrum, three of whose children attend the school. Nathan, Hailey and Emily Cockrum are pupils in the first, second and fourth grades.

"They were so excited that a relative of theirs got to come to school, that they could share him with the school," Cindy Cockrum said. "Emily got to introduce him to the fourth grade."

"I said, `This is my cousin Neil, and he's an astronaut,' and he said, `I'm in the Navy,' and I said, `You are?' and everybody laughed," Emily recalled.

During his visit, Woodward, a lieutenant commander in the Navy, described life in space. About 190 children attended the presentations, said Principal Cindy Hankin.

"He talked about why we go to space to learn things, said first-grade teacher Jessica Morrisey. The answer: "We go to space to learn things to help us on Earth."

"I was really struck that this was the first time that he had spoken to children, and he just did a wonderful job with them. He kept them really interested," she said.

"He showed them a lot of space food he had brought, and talked about why they can't eat anything with crumbs," Cindy Cockrum recalled. "When they're up there for a while with no gravity, their bones are weaker, so he talked about how that might help with the study of arthritis."

Cockrum said the children asked Woodward what it is like with no gravity, and about the temperature on the moon. She said he told them that in the shade, the moon's temperature can fall to minus 100 degrees; in the sun, the moon's temperature can reach 300 degrees.

Cockrum said she was surprised when second-grader Rachel Linder volunteered that the moon's gravity is 1/6 that of Earth.

Woodward told the pupils "how you go to the bathroom in the [space] shuttle. That's a popular question. It's almost like an airplane bathroom," Cockrum said. The contents "would freeze like a rock and could hit the side of the ship" if left in space, she said.

The children also asked about how the astronauts shower, Cockrum said. "Because the water won't go down the drain, they have to use baby wipes. He explained that when they first put on the suit, they have to lie still for five hours, and then they can start moving around. So if they were actually going up, it's a while before they can take the suit off. So they have to wear diapers," she said.

The children were highly entertained, Cockrum said. "They asked, `How do you get around in there?' and he was telling them there are handles all over the sides and you have to grab them. Everything is Velcroed: the fork to the table, the seat of the suit to the chair. The [drinking] straw has a little clip on it; otherwise all the stuff would just come out."

Hailey Cockrum said, "I never met an astronaut in person. "And I really liked when he showed us all the food, and people were asking him all these questions, and he said, `I came here because I know Hailey.' "

Most impressive to Cindy Cockrum and to Morrissey was the conclusion of Woodward's talk.

"He told them that when he was their age he never would have imagined that he would be an astronaut, but if you work hard at school and try and do what your parents ask, you never know what you can do when you grow up. That was how he concluded it," Cindy Cockrum said.

Woodward, who grew up in Oklahoma, is at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston. He will be assigned a mission within the next few months and hopes to fly within the next year or two, Cockrum said.

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