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Astronaut tells Discovery Center crowd how to get into orbit, a.k.a. “Space Camp plus”

  • Astronaut Sunita Williams talks about the International Space Station during AerospaceFest at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Astronaut Sunita Williams talks about her experiences on the International Space Station during AerospaceFest at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center in Concord on Saturday, May 7, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Astronaut Sunita Williams talks about how she once ran the Boston Marathon on a treadmill from inside the International Space Station during a talk at AerospaceFest at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center in Concord on Saturday, May 7, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Astronaut Sunita Williams signs a photo for 4-year-old Kanishka Ghosh of Nashua during AerospaceFest at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center in Concord on Saturday, May 7, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Astronaut Sunita Williams (right) talks with Pinkerton Academy sophomore Mackenzie Finocchiaro (center) and her father, John Finocchiaro, before personalizing a signed photo during AerospaceFest in Concord on Saturday. BELOW: Williams talks about how she once ran the Boston Marathon on a treadmill from inside the International Space Station. Photos by ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff



Monitor staff
Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Among the life lessons that carried Sunita Williams into orbit as commander of the International Space Station was learned along the Kancamagus Highway, although not in the sort of surroundings featured in tourist brochures.

“The first outhouse I used was on the Kancamagus Highway, it wasn’t very pleasant for a child of 5 . . . but I got through it,” said the former Needham, Mass., resident during a talk Saturday at the annual AerospaceFest at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center – a talk that followed a video discussion about how to go to the bathroom in orbit using what she called the ISS’s outhouse.

“It sounds silly, but if you know how to experience something that’s a little bit uncomfortable, that’s out of your wheelhouse . . . you’ve taken a step,” she said.

Williams, whose accomplishments include having taken more space walks than any woman, was the star of the annual AerospaceFest, which is built around the awarding of scholarships to three New Hampshire youths to attend the weeklong Space Camp at the U.S. Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala. During her talk, Williams referred to training for astronaut duty several times as “Space Camp plus.”

Annika Geiben Lynn, a seventh-grader from Bow, was among the winners of the Alex Higgins Memorial Space Camp Scholarship, named in honor of a Bedford boy who counted Space Camp as one of his life highlights.

“I’ve always been interested in space,” Annika said, mentioning an admiration for astrophysicist Neil deGrasse-Tyson, known for hosting the Nova science TV series. “I really like that there’s still so much to learn.”

AerospaceFest featured a variety of special events, including a comic book about Shepard’s flight as a Mercury astronaut made by Mitchell Comics, a tiny comics publisher in Tilton. It also had the usual displays, including an F8 Navy jet, which fits in the museum only because its wings fold up for storage on aircraft carriers; a suit worn by the Geordi Leforge character on Star Trek: The Next Generation; and many items related to the life and work of the state’s most famous spacegoing residents, Christa McAuliffe and Alan Shepard.

On Saturday, Williams, a 50-year-old Navy helicopter test pilot, was definitely the star attraction, demonstrated by the seemingly never-ending line of fans eager to get an autographed picture. Gregarious and outgoing – she used the word “awesome” at least 50 times when hearing children’s plans, and every time it sounded genuine. Her talks with fans included a concise review of the movie Gravity, which focused on an accident in orbit.

She liked the movie, she said, although actress Sandra Bullock’s scanty attire in one ISS scene wasn’t very realistic.

“We don’t wear just underwear in space,” Williams told a group of young men.

Among those in line who were inspired by Williams was Ashoka Prajapati of Nashua, a software engineer who came with his 11-year-old son, Ram. Both are space fans and excited about meeting any astronaut, but Prajapati said he was particularly interested in Williams because her father’s family comes from the Indian state of Gujarat, where his family is from. (Williams’s mother is from Slovenia.)

“It is very great to meet any of them, but part of the excitement here is her being Indian-American,” Prajapati said. “I sent a letter to my parents in India . . . they said I had to meet (her).”

Did Ram, a sixth-grader, share that excitement? Yes for meeting an astronaut, he said, but less so for her ancestry. “This is a melting pot,” Ram said.

For the many children and teens present, Williams had a message. She talked about ongoing efforts by NASA and a number of private companies getting into the launch business, developing new rockets with such exciting abilities as vertical landings by propulsion rather than parachute.

“This is what your generation is going to do,” she said, looking around the crowd. “I’m looking forward to this generation getting into Space Camp Plus, and taking that long journey to Mars.”

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek)