The Record-Review – The official newspaper of Bedford and Pound Ridge, New York


St. Patrick’s kids get a lesson in outer space


Matthew Cambareri, 4, asks former astronaut Dr. Donald Thomas a question about space equipment at St. Patrick’s School in Bedford Village on Friday, March 30.


For students, teachers and parents who took part in the daylong event, a visit last week by former astronaut Dr. Donald Thomas to St. Patrick’s School was out of this world.

Dr. Thomas, who flew in space four times on shuttle missions in the 1990s, spent most of the school day on March 30 meeting with students and discussing his career with NASA.

While his presentations to all grades at the Bedford Village school included a brief outline of his path to becoming an astronaut, some of the science behind the shuttle missions and details about the experiments conducted during his four shuttle flights, students from every grade invariably were most interested in one topic: What is it really like to be in outer space?

“It’s amazing on so many levels,” Dr. Thomas told the kids. “I can describe it, and show you photos, but it’s really an experience that’s hard to fully capture with words. I’ll try my best today, though.”

Dr. Thomas began by telling pre-K students and kindergartners that he was about their age when he first set his sights on traveling into space. “I remember 51 years ago when I was in kindergarten being brought into the gym of our elementary school and watching the first American go into space on this black-and-white television,” he said. “As I watched, I told myself, ‘I want to do that someday.’”

After receiving his doctorate in materials science from Cornell University, his work as a scientist eventually led to a job as an engineer at NASA’s Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, and he was selected as an astronaut in July 1991.

Dr. Thomas flew aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia three times, and Discovery once, logging 1,040 hours and traveling more than 17.5 million miles in space, the last time in 1997, before retiring from NASA in 2007.

He gave students a glimpse into preparing for takeoff, the buzz of anticipation as the countdown would commence and finally blasting into space.

“It’s all quiet until about six seconds before takeoff,” he explained. “Once the engines get going, we’re really rocking and rolling inside. We’re strapped in pretty good, because it’s a very rough ride. It only takes us eight and half minutes to get into space, traveling 200 miles above the earth at 15,000 miles an hour. So that eight and a half minutes to get up into space might be less time than it took most of you to get here to school this morning.”

With photos taken during his space missions, Dr. Thomas explained the various duties of the crew during each shuttle flight, as well as the oddities of living in space and dealing with zero gravity. Getting around the shuttle, eating, drinking, washing, sleeping and even going to the bathroom all require special accommodations, equipment, plenty of Velcro and some getting used to, even for well-trained astronauts.

“Everything floats in space, and there is no up or down,” he told the kids. “If you’re floating upside down in space, it feels totally normal.”

He showed photographs of earth taken from several of the shuttle’s 10 windows, including sunrises in space. “Because we travel around the earth every hour and a half aboard the shuttle, we see 16 sunrises and 16 sunsets every 24-hour day up there,” Dr. Thomas said. “It’s spectacular.”

Principal Jennifer Ciavirella said the astronaut’s presentations to all grades throughout the day were informative, but also a thrill for students, staff and parents who sat in on the talks.

“This was an unforgettable experience for everyone here at St. Patrick’s,” Ms. Ciavirella said. “Dr. Thomas’s firsthand account of what it’s like to travel in space was a real treat and a fantastic, unique learning experience. First and foremost, it was fun, but it also fit in well with our increased focus on our science curriculum.”

The principal also thanked the Simpson family of Bedford Corners, who arranged and paid for Dr. Thomas’s trip to the school.

After visiting the Kennedy Space Center in Florida with their young children this past year and hearing Dr. Thomas speak, Matt Simpson and his wife, Jennifer, decided they wanted everyone at St. Patrick’s school to get the chance to hear directly from an astronaut.

“Our kids were so, so excited about the whole experience that we knew we had to get Dr. Thomas to visit St. Patrick’s,” said Ms. Simpson, whose daughter Natalie, 5, is in pre-kindergarten and son Matthew, 7, is in the first grade. “Seeing the excitement on the faces of all the students today and hearing their interest in space exploration made it all worth it.”

Her husband agreed. “You never know — one of kids sitting here listening to these stories about space could spark an interest that will lead them to becoming the astronauts of tomorrow,” Mr. Simpson said.

Ms. Simpson shared how she became concerned a few days before the astronaut’s visit that they had never sent him directions to St. Patrick’s. “But my husband told me, ‘I don’t think we have to worry. He got to space and back, so I’m pretty sure he can find his way to Bedford,’” she said.   

Meeting Dr. Thomas and hearing about his firsthand experiences in space was a big thrill for students at all grade levels.

Kindergartner James Cavallaro, 5, who hopes to be an astronaut one day, said he was happy to find the answer to a question about space. “Even astronauts don’t really know if there are aliens on Mars or on other planets,” he said. “One day I’m going to be an astronaut and go up in space, too.”

Sixth-grader Eleanore McKenney said she found the astronaut’s discussion intriguing and at times funny. “It was interesting to learn about how an astronaut lives and functions in space,” she said. “Not only was Dr. Thomas informative, but he had a great sense of humor, too. It was so generous of Dr. Thomas to spend time with us at St. Patrick’s.”

Seventh-grader George Pazos found the fact that Dr. Thomas achieved his dream of becoming an astronaut and traveling into space a very inspirational part of his presentation.

“It was great how Dr. Thomas engaged the students and taught us about the outskirts of our planet,” he said. “I will never forget Dr. Thomas’s message of always believing in your dreams.”

Read more local coverage of your hometown in this week’s issue of the The Record-Review. Newsstand copies are available at several locations listed above, or subscribe today for convenient home delivery.


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APRIL 13, 2012