NASA educator Brian Ewenson spoke with students at Central ISD Monday about his experiences teaching astronauts over the years.
Ewenson grew up in Canada. After becoming enamored with astronauts after a visit to the Kennedy Space Center at 4 years old, he started working for the Canadian Space Agency until he was scouted by NASA and moved to the Johnson Space Center.
“My bags were packed in all of about 30 seconds, and I came down to the Johnson Space Center where I trained astronauts how to fly the space shuttle and how to use the big robot arm that Canada built for the shuttle and space station.”
He told the students that the main reason he comes to Texas during this time of year is to remember what happened 17 years ago.
Ewenson had worked with the seven astronauts on the Space Shuttle Columbia for three years, training them how to fly in space. They successfully made it into space for 16 days, including an experiment on board from a fifth-grade class in Maryland.
But on the way home on Feb. 1, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia crashed all over East Texas, and his friends lost their lives.
“But even out of tragedy sometimes, good things happen,” Ewenson said. “My experiment with those fifth-graders in Maryland survived the accident, and it came all the way down to Ken’s Mini Mart parking lot in Nacogdoches, Texas.”
The experiment was salvaged and sent three years later with the first teacher going into space, Barbara Morgan.
“Three years later we wanted to show those kids who were now in junior high, even though this was a tragedy, we have to keep moving forward to learn new things,” Ewenson said.
Ewenson told the students many fun facts like how the International Space Station has been in space for the past 20 years, meaning no student in the room had spent a day alive without a “citizen of the universe” in space.
He also told them some more yucky facts like how astronauts sometimes have to stay in their suits for days at a time, meaning their suits become their bathrooms with specialized diapers.
The students reacted in awe as he told them about a team of astronauts working to make it to the moon in 2024 or 2028 and to Mars by 2030.
“These astronauts are our new ones who are going to start building this space station around the moon called the lunar gateway, which will allow us to go back to the moon,” he said.
Third-grader Geordon Boulware said he thought the presentation was really cool, and his favorite part was when Ewenson showed a video called Coming Home about astronauts returning to Earth.
“It made me feel happy,” Geordon said. “But I don’t want to be an astronaut because I don’t want to be floating up in the air.”
Fourth-graders Allison Barge and Genesis Dianas and third-grader Isaaz Martinez felt differently. They said they’d love to be astronauts.
“You don’t have to hold anything,” Isaac said. “Whenever you want to eat your food, you don’t have to hold it. You can just bite it while it’s in the air.”
They also said they thought it was nasty that astronauts couldn’t take showers in space and sometimes had to “chase their poop around.”
“My goal as an educator is not to create astronauts but to expose students to the opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math,” Ewenson said. “When we look at the space shuttle program for example, there were seven astronauts on board that space ship, but I am one of the 43,000 people at NASA that if I don’t do my job, those folks don’t make it to and from space.”
NASA has space for graphic designers, linguists, reporters, engineers and more. Not every student has to be a mathematician or an astronaut, he said.
“Children are the future of our nation and our world. We want to motivate them to do great things,” Ewenson said. “The key thing, too, is to let them know you don’t have to grow up in a big city to do great things. Our primary astronaut from Wisconsin comes from a town of 300, maybe 400. And he’s made it all the way to space and the military.
“You can dream it, but you’re end of the bargain is you have to study hard and apply yourselves, and you have no idea where you will find yourself in the future.”