Little Milligan students glimpse legacy of the astronauts

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

STAR Staff
khelms@starhq.com

   The tragedy of Saturday's ill-fated flight of the space shuttle Columbia was still fresh in the minds of Little Milligan Elementary School students Wednesday. But the legacy of the astronauts, their sacrifice, and their passion to reach for the stars was not lost, thanks to second-grade teacher Cathy Blair.
   Blair has made educating students about space science her personal mission, influenced largely by her brother, Samuel T. Durrance, Ph.D., who logged more than 615 hours in space as a payload specialist aboard space shuttles Columbia and Endeavour.
   Wednesday morning, students dressed in Columbia T-shirts and replicas of official space suits worn by the NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) astronauts, participated in simulated space experiments for a first-hand look at some of the challenges astronauts face while in space.
   Blair's brother, now director of the Florida Space Science Research Institute, also dropped in via telephone to chat with students and inspire them to keep the dream of space exploration alive.
   "None of us ever believed that Sam, of all of us, would become an astronaut," Blair said. "According to my parents, he was not the best student. Somehow, he lost interest in school and when he was in high school, he wasn't interested in much other than cars, football and girls."
   After Durrance graduated high school, Blair said, he began working in a restaurant as a waiter. One night, he took a television with him to work because astronauts were going to walk on the moon and he wanted to watch it. He left the restaurant that night with a new goal in life - to become an astronaut.
   "His grades were not as good as they should have been, but Sam, all of the sudden, had a passion -- something that he really wanted to do, and he set out to do it. ... He had to work really hard to make up for some of that lost time and some of the work that he hadn't done when he was your age," Blair told students.
   Years later, Durrance received a bachelor of science degree and a master of science degree in physics (with honors) from California State University and a doctor of philosophy degree in astro-geophysics from the University of Colorado. He went on to become an astronaut.
   "Our family was proud and a little bit scared because here we were going to have somebody who was going to fly on top of -- as he explained it -- 'a bomb,' because the space shuttle really is like a bomb," she said.
   After her brother returned from his first voyage into space, Blair asked him what it was like. Her brother placed a chair back-side-down in the floor and had her lie in it, facing the ceiling, with her feet sticking up in the air.
   "Now, lie there like that for three hours," Durrance told his sister. He then shook her for a full eight minutes, timing it as he went, while pushing down on her chest to illustrate the effect of gravity.
   Then, he told her, "You take the seatbelt off and you're just floating."
   Blair showed students a book entitled "The Greatest Adventure," a collection of essays from U.S. space travelers, Russian cosmonauts, and astronauts from the European space station.
   On the back of the book is a quote from Blair's brother which states: "I left Earth with great anticipation, great excitement, and a little apprehension. I returned with a new feeling of wonder, a new perspective -- a space traveler's perspective."
   Durrance autographed the book for his sister, saying, "In going to look at the stars we learned to look back at Earth. I was smiling down at you, remembering the beautiful places we explored there as kids, the tidal pools of the coasts and the magnificent mountains. Thanks for all the memories and for sharing a space traveler's adventure ..."
   Durrance and his crew trained with Christa MacAuliffe before the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. His maiden voyage was set for 10 days after the Challenger's scheduled departure.
   Blair was asked to apply for the Challenger mission "because they thought it would be fun to have a brother and sister in space," she said. Pregnant with her first child, however, it was not to be.
   "When the Challenger took off, Sam and his crew members were practicing for their mission so they would be ready. They called the crew out to watch the video of the Challenger take-off, never expecting what happened to occur. You can imagine how sad they were," she said. As a result, "Sam's flight held the record for the most delayed flight in shuttle history."
   The flight of the space shuttle, over the years, does not command public attention the way it once did, Blair told students. "It's kind of sad that it takes something as tragic as what happened Saturday to get all of us to think about that again," she said.
   "Yes, we as a nation and a people experienced a very sad event Saturday, and yes, we're sad and we feel really bad, especially for the family members. But it is important to remember that the worst thing that could happen for their legacy and their memory is for us to not keep that dream alive," Blair said.
   "You can leave here today thinking, 'You know, it's a scary business but someday I might want to do that,' " Blair told students. "But if you don't want to do that, the lesson for you to remember is to find something that you love to do, and do it with all your heart and do it really, really well, and work hard at it -- as they do -- and in that way, you honor their memory."
   To that end, teachers like Blair are committed to doing what they can to share this dream with children throughout America. A former science supervisor at a school in Hillsborough County, Fla., Blair came to Little Milligan this school year. She currently is negotiating to bring the "Eagle Explorer," a school bus-turned-space shuttle, to Carter County.
   The "Explorer" has been used in the Florida school system since 1989, Blair said. "It goes around to all the schools down there and all of the kids get to fly into space on an imaginary bus."
   It's time to share, Blair said.