Retired astronaut Mark Kelly shares lessons from space with Columbus area third-graders

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comAugust 27, 2013 

The day after giving the keynote address at some fancy leadership forum, where grown-ups paid a chunk of their allowance to hear him talk, retired astronaut Mark Kelly stayed in town to speak to a different kind of audience.

About 400 local third-graders gathered in University Hall at Columbus State University to hear a man who blasted into the infinite vastness of space encourage them to harness the power of small stuff.

Kelly and his wife, former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., were the keynote speakers Monday night at the Jim Blanchard Leadership Forum. Tuesday morning, Kelly read the students his bestselling children's book, "Mousetronaut."

The story, released in 2012, is a tale about a mouse named Meteor, who yearns to travel into space. Other mice he competes with are bigger, but Meteor is chosen for the last spot on the flight. During the mission, disaster strikes and only the smallest mouse can save the day.

The idea for Kelly's book came from his first space mission, in 2001, when he flew with 18 mice. The mice were in a cage, but they still experienced the effects of zero gravity along with the astronauts. While the bigger mice clung to the mesh in their cages, one fearless fellow found the joy of weightlessness as he floated around.

"He even did a flip," Kelly said.

That can-do attitude was hammered home when Kelly answered a third-grader's question about how he decided to become an astronaut.

"Well, when I was in high school, I decided I wanted to be an astronaut," he said. "… I wasn't the best student, but I got better and I started to get motivated. Somebody told me a long time ago, if you do well in school, if you listen to your teachers and parents and you do well, it gives you options.

"Do you know what options are? … If you do well in school and then do well in college, you get to pick what you want to do in life, whether it's a police officer or a scientist or a teacher or a medical doctor. … If you don't do well in school, somebody else is going to get to decide, and you're not going to have a lot of options. You might have to just take whatever is available."

Kelly also noted he wasn't the best student in college or the best pilot in the Navy or the best astronaut in NASA, but other qualities pushed him to persevere:

"I really stuck with it and worked really hard," he said. "You guys in third grade, you try new stuff all the time, right? You might try soccer for the first time or baseball or some new science class. I really believe how good you are at the beginning of anything you try is not a good indicator of how good you can become. Anybody can overcome a lack of ability with practice, persistence and never, ever, ever giving up."

Here are other questions from the third-graders and excerpts from Kelly's answers:

What's it feel like to be in a space shuttle?

"The first time, it's a little scary, but the fun part is certainly rocketing off the planet. It is an incredible feeling. Being in space in zero gravity and floating around for weeks at a time is a lot of fun. You can fly through the space station like Superman. That's incredible. And then coming home is always fun."

What did you eat (in space)?

"Unlike the Apollo days, when they ate food out of tube like toothpaste, we had about 400 different (food choices) on the space shuttle. You picked your food months in advance, what you would have for every single meal, or you could tell them (no preference). We ate dehydrated food on the space shuttle. What that means is food with the water taken out of it. So imagine if you had, say, green beans that have no water in them. They're just dry, incredibly dry. Then we add the water back in when we're in space to rehydrate them. The reason we do that is because water is heavy. The space shuttle makes electricity by using something called a fuel cell, where we have oxygen and hydrogen to make electricity. One of the by-products you get, what's left over, is water. So we're constantly making a lot of water, and instead of carrying the water in food, we add the water back in. … For example, one of the good things on the space shuttle was shrimp cocktail. It was pretty good, but after you added water you had to leave it for about 15 minutes to let it absorb the water. Now, the Russian food that's in the space station is not dehydrated; it comes up in cans like tuna fish. It's pretty good, but a lot of it tastes kind of the same."

Do you like space more than Earth?

"Well, I've been in space for 55 days. I don't know how many days I've been on Earth. What's 49 times 365? That's a lot. That's like 17,000. … So I really appreciate the 55 days I've had in space, but I wouldn't want to live in space. It's kind of confining. The space station is small. It's also not good for you. It's not good for your body. There's a lot of radiation. Also, without gravity, your bones start to get weak and your muscles start to get weak, so it's something you only do for a short period of time."

What has been your scariest experience (in space)?

"On my third flight, we had a little problem with our solid rocket boosters. … That made us a little nervous."

What is it like to float in space?

"Floating is a lot of fun. There's no up or down. … You can sleep on the ceiling if you wanted to, sleep on the walls, sleep with your head close to the floor. You can eat upside down. … There's some things that the lack of gravity makes easier or harder. I could move something that's really heavy but could never pick up on Earth. What's difficult is trying to handle a bunch of objects at once. You can put them down; they float away. So it's very hard to manage. If you have a screwdriver, a wrench and a hammer and another wrench, and you're trying to work on something, you've got to Velcro them somewhere, but they can get knocked off."

Related stories:

Kelly recalls space career, shooting tragedy, fighting spirit of his wife Gabby Giffords at forum

Gabby Giffords and Mark Kelly will speak at Jim Blanchard Leadership Forum

Giffords and Kelly likely to create emotional moments

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