One of the highlights of the very good month of May was the arrival in New Zealand of the crew of NASA’s space shuttle Discovery, just back from the International Space Station. The six astronauts – commander Steven Lindsey, pilot Eric Boe, and mission specialists Nicole Stott, Alvin Drew, Michael Barratt, and Stephen Bowen – graciously agreed to spend 10 days here in New Zealand visiting primary and secondary schools to talk about space and science.

Space walk over New Zealand. Click through for image source.

From left, astronauts Alvin Drew, Nicole Stott, Eric Boe, Steven Lindsey, Michael Barratt, and Stephen Bowen.

Squired throughout their visit by Ree Varcoe of the Hamilton Central Business Association, the crew spent four days in the Waikato, four days in Christchurch, and two days in Auckland. Over the course of that time the astronauts interacted with more than a thousand students from about 20 different schools. The message at each stop was the same … dream, work hard, reach for the stars, and choose a career that excites you.

At each stop the crew talked about the challenges of living and working in zero gravity, their own particular paths to becoming astronauts, and the ins and outs of space shuttles and space walks. They talked in detail about their last mission delivering and attaching a large multi-purpose module named Leonardo to the International Space Station.

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The astronauts in Christchurch with the girls at St Margaret School, in the temporary post-quake tent auditorium.

I saw light bulbs go on above heads at each stop as the crew urged students to pursue the sorts of careers in technology, science, and engineering that they themselves have developed. The astronauts clearly delight in what they do, and they conveyed to the students the joy, fun, and fulfillment of science-oriented endeavors.

At each school the crew showed a video about their recent mission … with several very Kiwi highlights:  a glorious view of New Zealand from space, a space walk high above the country, and a Hamilton city flag that the crew carried with them to the Space Station. The astronauts made it abundantly clear that there is plenty of room in space for aspiring Kiwi astronauts.

Space walk over New Zealand. Click through for image source.

One of the astronauts on a space walk over New Zealand.

There were plenty of great questions at each stop. My favorite was from a special needs primary school student at Hammersley Park School in Christchurch who asked the pilot how he kept the shuttle from being sucked into a black hole. I also enjoyed the way that the girls at St Margaret’s School in Christchurch mobbed mission specialist Nicole Stott after she explained that one of her jobs was giving detailed instructions to — i.e., bossing around — the guys when they were out on space walks.

The crew’s mission was named STS-133 because it was the 133rd flight in NASA’s Space Shuttle program … and the final flight of Shuttle Discovery. NASA’s Orbiter Fleet leader, Discovery made its maiden flight in August 1984 and has completed 39 successful missions since then, including carrying the Hubble Space Telescope into space. It will now be retired to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. Shuttles Atlantis and Endeavor remain active, although the Shuttle program will shortly be drawing to a close.

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At Hammersley Park School in Christchurch.

In addition to visiting schools, the astronauts met with business and civic leaders, made public presentations, visited several maraes, gave press interviews (including on Campbell Live), and enjoyed a bit of sightseeing. In Hamilton they visited King Tuheitia Paki and gifted the city with the flag that they had carried into space. In Christchurch they visited the Antarctic Centre and tried their hand at harness racing. In Auckland they visited Starship Children’s Hospital and gave a presentation that was carried by video conference to other hospitals in Dunedin, Christchurch, Hamilton, Tauranga, and Auckland.

I was unable to get to Hamilton to greet the crew when they first arrived in New Zealand, but I did fly down to join them in Christchurch. I wouldn’t have missed it. One of my most vivid memories as a kid was watching Neil Armstrong take the first human step onto the Moon, and I was a major space junkie through much of my childhood. So, it was a thrill to meet six real-honest-to-God-living-breathing astronauts who had broken free of Earth, walked in space, and lived days (and in a couple of cases, months) in a space station. Goosebumps.  Enough said.

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With my new friends.

I particularly enjoyed driving out to Otahuna Lodge one night with the crew to meet Mayor Bob and Mayoress Jo Parker for dinner. The Lodge looks great after its second post-quake renovation, and it should be open for guests again in July. We had a superb dinner, matched only by the rollicking conversation.

Among other topics, we talked about space flight after the Shuttle program and about the next generation of space vehicles now under development. I asked about the physical and mental effects of prolonged space flight on humans, which unleashed a flood of enthusiastic stories by Doc Barratt. A great many jokes were told. As usual, the Mayor and I jousted about this and that.

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After dinner with Mayor Parker at Otahuna Lodge.

All together, it was an extraordinarily busy, productive, and generous visit. I was delighted that the astronauts were able to spend so much time here in New Zealand. I was impressed with how naturally they interacted with all kinds of students … from science whizzes to kids with special needs’ … from Decile 1 to Decile 10 … from 6-year-olds to 18-year-olds.

And I was moved by how sincerely they empathized with Cantabrians facing significant challenges in the wake of the recent earthquakes. Christchurch was added to the itinerary specifically because the astronauts wanted to show their solidarity and concern. As pilot Eric Boe said, “The people of Christchurch are going through a difficult time now, and we’d like to bring a message of hope and optimism to them as they go about rebuilding their lives.”

Steve, Eric, Nicole, Al, Mike, and Steve … thanks for coming to visit. We’d love to see you back again soon.