The East Lincoln Elementary School Eagles were treated to a visit from a special guest on Tuesday, May 22, when former astronaut Mike McCulley came to talk to them about life and work in space.
The visit was coordinated by Jacobs as the first glimpse of an expanded community partnership program, according to Business Development Coordinator Chelsea Short.
“We just wanted to get more involved in the community,” she said, “and what better way to do so than to inspire the community’s youth about the importance of STEM?”
McCulley, a member of the Space Shuttle Atlantis crew in 1989, said he considered the visit “a special treat,” and was impressed with how receptive the students were to his talk.
“I worry sometimes about little kids and their attention spans,” he said, “but it was delightful. This was a great group of kids.”
Life in space
McCulley entertained the students with a short lesson on how different life in a space shuttle is from life on Earth, including depictions of zero-gravity living, his duties and responsibilities on the shuttle and the transition back to life on Earth.
Eating and drinking
McCulley also explained to the students how the body changes in space, using taste buds as an example.
Astronauts love Goldfish crackers, he said, because they’re a little more salty than other crackers.
“One thing that changes in zero gravity is your taste buds,” he said, “so you like things to have a little more spice in them so they taste a little better.”
Small, bite-size crackers are also preferable to astronauts due to their lack of crumbs, he said.
On Earth, crumbs fall on the lap or the floor, he said, but in zero gravity, the crumbs just hover and float around in the shuttle. They can even float away and get into some of the machinery and damage it, so eating smaller crackers that can be put in the mouth whole makes for better snacking in space.
When dealing with drinks and other liquids, he said, NASA provides special beverage containers that look like juice pouches.
One difference in them, however, is that they all come equipped with a special clip on the straws that prevent spills.
“So when you’re drinking, you take the little clothespin off; and when you’re done, you put that back on so that water or orange juice or coffee or whatever it is doesn’t spill,” he said.
While the drink pouches do have an official name from NASA, he said, they’re basically “fancy” Capri-Suns.
“You have to be very careful when you’re eating and drinking,” McCulley said.
When it comes to daily chores like cleaning on the shuttle, McCulley said, the lightest touches can send tools and materials back and forth through the shuttle.
Additionally, operating ordinary tools in space requires special techniques that aren’t required on Earth. Tightening a screw, for example, could send him spinning around instead of the screw.
“The screw doesn’t move, but I do,” he said.
To prevent that happening, he said, astronauts have special restraints into which they can secure themselves to keep from moving.
Sleeping on the space shuttle was an interesting affair, McCulley said.
“We have something that looked a lot like a sleeping bag, except NASA calls it a sleep restraint system,” he said.
Because there’s no gravity, he said, you don’t need a pillow, and there’s “no wiggling around to see where your body feels best when you get into bed.”
Instead, he said, everyone is simply floating in various spaces, which made for some interesting ways to spend nights.
After his mission, McCulley said, transitioning back to life with gravity was an odd experience with some difficulties here and there.
“Because you’ve been in zero gravity for some period of time, now all of a sudden things are pushing on you again,” he said of re-entering the gravity of Earth.
“You’ve got to get used to being back,” he said.
When he first returned to Earth, he said, he still wasn’t used to the gravity, so when he went to move his helmet – an extraordinarily expensive piece of equipment – away from him so he could exit the shuttle, he ended up dropping it.
“I got yelled at by the people who were in charge of the helmets,” he said. “I got yelled at by everybody.”
Life at home was also difficult to adapt to, he said.
Issues with gravity affect one’s sense of balance, he said, so when he first returned home there were a number of times when he completely fell over while walking. However, he made sure to tell everyone, balance does come back eventually.
A few fifth-grade students were allowed to ask questions of McCulley, including Olivia Spencer, who asked what people interested in becoming an astronaut should do while they’re growing up and going through school.
In short, McCulley said, people needed to have curiosity.
“Curiosity about everything,” he said, “will drive you to work harder in math and science.” McCulley added that investment in the arts was equally important.
Involvement in things like school plays and team sports was another thing students should keep in mind as they grow, he said.
“When you get to the point where you’re applying to be an astronaut, the things that you have done have to be more than just being smart,” he said.
Another question came from Avery Caldwell, who asked for more information on what happens to the human body after being in space for a length of time.
McCulley said the major change in the body after time in space was a loss of muscle tone and calcium in the bones. Because the body doesn’t need to fight with gravity in the use of its muscles, those muscles lose definition over time.
There are ways to combat the loss of muscle tone, however, McCulley said. One way astronauts keep their muscles strong is to do some exercises in orbit or stomp their feet on something so their bodies know not to grow lax in space.
There is also a long-term issue with dryness in the eyes, he said, as the lack of gravity doesn’t allow the fluid around the eye to keep moving to keep the eye moist.
McCulley closed out his talk with a message to all the students in the room.
“Kids your age are going to come and do what I did,” he said. “Some of you from this room, in this room today … are going to be the right age at the right time and get to do what I did.”
He also impressed upon all the children that any one of them could become an astronaut if they so choose – no matter their gender.
“Anybody in this room can go do what I did, and some of you will,” he said.
The curiosity for how things work, which he said he also had when he was a student, starts during childhood, and he thanked each of the teachers for fostering curiosity in the students.
Plans for expansion
Jacobs officials said they plan to keep these kinds of programs going next year, including hosting programs in all four elementary schools.
Short told The News she had been contacted by the other three elementary schools about similar programs in their buildings, so she sees positive results from Tuesday’s program.
“Next year we hope to engage more, if not all, of the schools in one day,” she said.
Eventually, she said, she hopes to bring some kind of STEM or astronaut program to all seven schools in the district.
Vice President of Business Development Chris Conner told The News the program content might change depending on the age of the audience, but the main focus would still be on engaging young people in STEM careers.
“We’re very interested in getting young people to be a part of the future of math, science and engineering,” Conner said.
As for now, Short said Jacobs was “really thankful” for McCulley’s participation and willingness to come to Tullahoma for a short lesson on space life.
Erin McCullough may be reached at email@example.com.