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Astronaut explains his shuttle mission to students

October 26, 2000

Astronaut explains his shuttle mission to students



By RICHARD F. BELISLE / Staff Writer, Waynesboro


MONT ALTO, Pa. - Greencastle middle school student Sarah Williams spent an hour Thursday morning listening to Astronaut James Pawelczyk tell of his exploits in space on a Columbia shuttle flight two years ago.

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"I never really knew how a spaceship works, but I do now," said Williams, 11. She was one of more than 500 middle school students from area school districts who sat in an auditorium at the Penn State Mont Alto campus to hear Pawelczyk.

Pawelczyk, 40, an assistant professor of physiology and kinesiology at Penn State's main campus, gave a lecture and video presentation on his 16-day trip into space in the spring of 1998.

The hour whizzed by. He could answer all the questions posed by hundreds of raised hands.

The kids wanted to know, among other things, how fast the space ship traveled, where Pawelczyk slept on board, why he wore the heavy orange space suit, whether his ears popped in space, what he ate, and how did he go to the bathroom.

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Pawelczyk told them his duty on the mission was to conduct neuroscience experiments on the effects of space flight on the nervous system, balance, blood-pressure regulations, sleep and body movements.

"A lot happens to your brain and nervous system in space," he said.

He explained the effect on astronauts' bodies from the forces exerted during takeoff to their arrival in space where bodies become weightless.

He said the orange space suits, with their oxygen and cooling systems and parachutes, weigh about 85 pounds. The G-forces on takeoff propel the rocket to 130 miles per hour by the time it passes the launch tower. That speed increases to 2,000 miles per hour in just minutes.

A few more minutes pass and the ship reaches 18,000 miles per hour for the final ride to orbital height. "You're really going someplace in a hurry," he said. "The 85-pound space suit ends up weighing about 850 pounds."

Once in space, weightlessness makes you lose touch with where things are, he said. "If you close your eyes there's no way of telling if you're upside down or not," he said.

The human body grows by about 1 1/2 inches in space because the spinal cord stretches due to the lack of gravity. It reverts to normal height back on earth, he said.

Pawelczyk said the mission he went on carried six other astronauts plus 2,000 animals brought on board for experiments. Included in the 2,000 were 1,500 crickets, he said. The video showed some comical scenes of laboratory rats trying to deal with weightlessness.

David Goldenberg, chief executive officer of the Mont Alto campus, told the students that Louis Schatz, who graduated from the school in 1934, owned a company that makes the tiles that keep spacecraft from burning up in the atmosphere during the descent back to earth.

Schatz gave the local college more than $1.2 million two years ago.

Pawelczyk was an astronaut for about two years. NASA has 170 astronauts and another 17,000 employees to support them, he said. There are engineers, computer people, astronomers, physicists and general workers. "I was part of a big team," he said.

He said NASA's newest project is building a giant space station in space. It will be larger than four college gymnasiums, he said. Scientists hope to learn more about how humans adapt to spending long periods in space.

Pawelczyk told the students that NASA's next big goal will be a manned trip to Mars. "I won't see it, but it will happen in your lifetime. You will be adults. Maybe one of you sitting here in Mont Alto will be the first human to set foot on Mars," he said.

He urged the students to study and to learn all they can. "Find out what you love best and become an expert at it. Be better at it than anyone else."

John Gamble, a Greencastle-Antrim Middle School teacher, brought his class to the lecture. He said that in addition to learning about space travel his students learned from listening to Pawelczyk that they, too, can be successful at whatever they choose to do in life.

"They learned that now is the time that they have to start to do their best and that is a very important message," Gamble said.

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