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Esty and NASA's Bresnik: Education is the 'STEM' to Becoming An Astronaut

Credit: Jessie Sawyer
Credit: Jessie Sawyer
This article was written by Jessie Sawyer

NASA astronaut Randolph Bresnik and Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty spoke to Farmington High School students Monday about the importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics education (STEM) in getting a job in the field like an astronaut.

Bresnik, also a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps, said that his studies in math and physics from as far back as high school taught him about problem solving. Before NASA hired many of his fellow astronauts, they were regular people like the high school students in the audience, he said. 

"If you understand the basics," your dreams become possible, the California native said. 

He has spent more than 250 hours in space since his first space shuttle launch on Nov. 16, 2009, according to a press release from Esty's office. He spent about 12 days in space helping deliver "30,000 pounds of replacement parts for systems that provide power" to the International Space Station to "keep it from overheating, and maintain proper orientation in space," according to his astronaut bio on the NASA website.

Esty is a member of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, "where she has made boosting STEM education a top priority," according to a press release from her office. 

"Last month, Esty introduced the STEM Jobs Act to help enhance teacher professional development programs at the National Science Foundation and the Department of Education to support teachers in the STEM fields," the release said.

Some Connecticut companies produce NASA equipment, such as  Hamilton Sundstrand in Windsor Locks, which designed NASA spacesuits. Jonal Laboratories in Meriden makes the bladders in NASA spacesuits.  The bladders inflate with oxygen when there's low cabin pressure, according to NASA's website.  

One of Connecticut's own launched into space on Nov. 6 for six months of research experiments. Rick Mastracchio, of Waterbury, is an astronaut currently on the International Space Station, according to the press release. Esty congratulated him on the House floor before his trip. 

The space station is about the size of a five-bedroom home inside, he said.  While he was up there, he did two space walks over a period of "11 hours and 50 minutes," the bio states, and his wife gave birth in Texas to his child. He hopes to have a second mission to the space station for a six-month tour the next time.

Being in space gives you a new perspective, he said.

"Your whole life, the whole horizon is flat and now the horizon is curved," he said. 

The astronauts trained in a swimming pool to get used to the feeling of zero gravity.

He also shared fun facts like what space smelled like to him. 

In case you're wondering, he quipped that the smell reminded him of "cream of mushroom soup."

Students had a chance to ask him questions after his presentation, such as how zero gravity affects the body. Bresnik said that an issue many astronauts experience is bone density loss. Another wanted to know how many people in his astronaut class went to the space station and he said that all of them did.

Junior Austin Fleming was so captivated by Bresnik's presentation that he said he is considering becoming an astronaut now. Senior Sarah Ciccaglione already knows that she wants to do aerospace or aeronautical engineering work.

Ciccaglione, who has been the president of Farmington High School's Astronomy Club since 2011, said she remembers going camping with her family as a child and looking up at the stars. 

"I've always loved [space] ever since I was little," she said.

She and about 17 students and chaperones will travel to Florida this year to visit the Kennedy Space Center. The club has 60 members.

Both students have relatives that have done work at Hamilton Sundstrand in Windsor Locks and Ciccaglione's uncle worked on designing the space suits that Bresnik's crew wore in space. Both enjoyed meeting someone who had experience in space. 

Bresnik said that .4 percent of the federal budget is spent on NASA and encouraged more funding for the space program. He said that the United States needs its own space vehicle to be a leader in the field. 

NASA astronauts are helping humans prepare for the possibility of a future in space, he said.

"How do we live when Earth maybe becomes inhabitable for us?"       

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