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Astronaut Fires Up Rockwood Students

Friday was heyday for Rockwood School District students interested in space, aeronautical tidbits and aviation careers, including their teachers and families. Discussions included living on the moon to practice launching to Mars.

Many students got to 'space out' Friday for a good and beneficial reason:  National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) astronaut Robert Behnken interacted with them in-person to share his experiences about being in space.

During his visit, Lt. Col. Behnken, USAF—who is a former St. Louis resident—exchanged information with students in a couple of ways, according to Rockwood sources:

  • He delivered the keynote address at Rockwood's Ellisville-based Center for Creative Learning’s New Horizons in Space Symposium held Friday. This event was sponsored by CCL's Parent Teacher Organization members, with additional help from the Space Museum owners in Bonne Terre, MO. CCL elementary-aged students come from throughout the Rockwood district. The event was hosted at in Ellisville and open to all community residents. It also featured space expert exhibitors from the St. Louis area. 
  • He shared his background with high school students interested in learning about engineering, aeronautical and aviation careers, including , , Marquette High and Rockwood Summit High.

"An astronaut visited us 15 years ago, and we've been trying to secure another visit for a long time," said Linda Smith, CCL program director. "It's very hard to get such a commitment from NASA, so we felt very lucky."

It probably helped this particular astronaut has specific ties to St. Louis in that he graduated from in Maryland Heights in 1988. He then earned a bachelor's degree in physics and mechanical engineering at Washington University in 1992. His master's and doctor's degree were earned at the California Institute of Technology.

Behnken was selected as a mission specialist by NASA in July 2000. After completing 18 months of training and evaluation, he was assigned technical duties in the Astronaut Office Shuttle Branch supporting launch and landing activities at Kennedy Space Center, FL, according to NASA's records. Behnken logged more than 708 hours in space, including 37 EVA hours during six space walks. During the fall of 2008, he trained as a mission specialist for STS-400, the rescue flight for the last Hubble Servicing Mission.

During an operation for STS-130 Endeavour (February 8-21, 2010), Behnken participated in NASA's 32nd Space Station assembly mission. He operated the space station robotic arm, served as the spacewalking lead and performed three spacewalks. The mission was accomplished in 217 orbits of the Earth, traveling 5,738,991 statute miles in 13 days, 18 hours, 6 minutes and 24 seconds.

Smith said Behnken showed a slide presentation and videos of his space walks. CCL students who are in second grade and participating in the "Return to the Moon" class got to ask him specific questions, as did CCL students who are in fifth grade and in the "Mission to Mars" class.

Some of the most interesting questions, Smith said, had to do with when Behnken knew he wanted to be an astronaut and how he communicated with space station workers from other countries. "When he spoke in Russian to our students, he told them learning other languages was very hard, but it demonstrated how much he really wanted to be able to go on a space mission," she said.

One student asked Behnken what he wanted the future of space to be like. Smith said he told students his vision would not happen in his lifetime, but was more likely to happen during their generation. "He told them he believes they will be able to establish a colony of people on the moon, and that it will give Americans the opportunity to train so they eventually can launch to Mars," she said.

"Talk about a mind-blowing vision!"

Smith said approximately 400 people attended Behnken's presentation and the accompanying Space Symposium learning booths, which also included displays of the students' space-related work and artistic renderings connected to the moon.

"It's was a glorious, multifaceted event," said Smith.

Behnken's visit was facilitated by the district's Partners in Education team. "This was a great example of how Partners in Education professionals provided high-level experiences for Rockwood's students, as well as their ability to take care of essential arrangements."

Smith said more than one Rockwood parent told her their children's interest in space and astronomy were sparked by these classroom units and the excitement of meeting Behnken.

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