The Jess & Mildred Fisher College of Science & Mathematics

Hackerman Academy of Mathematics and Science


‘When you come back to Earth, you feel like you weigh a ton.’
Students make space to hear from astronaut

by Rachel Seawell

Fallston, MD (February 27, 2008) — Retired astronaut Dr. Don Thomas has orbited the earth 700 times and traveled more than 20,000 miles in space, but Monday morning he was a little more down to earth at Fallston Middle School, where he spoke to sixth-grade science students.

Don Thomas use a model to demonstrate space shuttle in flight at Falston Middle SchoolThomas has been on four missions – three on Columbia and one on Discovery – and has spent 44 days in space; he embarked on his last mission 11 years ago, in July 1997.

Now a professor at Towson University, he used a picture slideshow and real-life space objects to tell the anxious sixth-graders about his travels.

"In space, there is no up or down. The blood won't rush to your head if you hang upside down like it does on Earth," he told the students. "Wherever you park your butt, that becomes your floor."

All food in space is freeze dried, there are no refrigerators or microwaves. When preparing a meal, a needle is used to inject warm or cold water into the freeze dried package.

It is impossible to drink liquids out of bottles or cups in space, according to Thomas, because without gravity nothing would come out.

"Instead, astronauts drink out of pouches similar to packaging used for the juice drink Capri Sun," he explained.

Since there is zero gravity in space, it is important to exercise on a daily basis to keep your muscles strong and keep the blood circulating through your body.

Thomas showed a picture of an exercise room on the space shuttle with a bike, which had no seat. There is no point in having a seat, he explained, because it would be impossible to stay seated. Instead astronauts strap themselves to the equipment

Dr. Thomas and Student at Fallston Middle School"If you exercise for 45 minutes every day, you go halfway around the world," he said. "And you can look out the overhead windows while you're exercising and see Australia or Africa go by."

Sleeping arrangements on a space shuttle are very different from that on Earth, in that astronauts sleep standing up, with their backs strapped against the wall. Their heads are strapped to their pillow, and it is important they keep their arms crossed in front of them.

"Your body and head is used to putting some pressure against your mattress and pillow, but that doesn't happen in space with zero gravity. That's why we strap ourselves in," he said.

There is no shower, bathtub, or sink in space. Astronauts must take sponge baths and use a special no-rinse shampoo, the same kind used in hospitals. The toilet, which astronauts must secure themselves on with bars, has a giant fan in the bottom, which sucks air from the toilet seat downward.

Throughout his slideshow, Thomas revealed pictures of a hurricane from space, focusing on the eye of the storm, where you could see straight down to the Pacific Ocean. He has also seen a volcano exploding in Indonesia, the top of Mount Everest and the Great Barrier Reef from space.

Each mission Thomas has taken part in has lasted roughly two weeks, where every day he saw 16 sunrises and sunsets, and orbited the earth every 90 minutes.

"When you come back to Earth, you feel like you weigh a ton," he said. "When I returned from my first mission, I couldn't lift my leg more than an inch at first."

Student at Fallston Middle SchoolDuring a question and answer session following Thomas' presentation, the group of sixth-graders asked him many questions, such as is there TV in space, what was Thomas' favorite space food and what happens if you're floating around and want to stop but have nothing to grab hold of?

After viewing a picture of the space shuttle, a student asked Thomas why the front part of the shuttle is darker than the rest. "When landing, the rocket can reach a temperature of 3,000 degrees, so there is special insulation tiles on the front of the shuttle to ensure the heat does not reach the inside where the astronauts are," he said, while picking up a sample of the tile and showing it to the students.

Another student asked Thomas where the astronauts put their trash while in space. "We put bags of trash under certain floor panels of the rocket," he said. ";It starts to smell by the end of the mission but we can't tell because it is a gradual thing and we are in the rocket."

Thomas, the guest of teacher Liz Rutherford, was talking to students who recently finished a unit in their earth science class. He also answered question from students who participated in the science fair.

Reprinted with permission from The Aegis

Hackerman Academy of Mathematics and Science
Psychology Building, Room 208 (campus map)
Hours: Monday - Friday, 8:30 a.m. - 5 p.m.

Phone: 410-704-3659





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