WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) — "Do you think there is life on other planets?"
"How do you take a shower in space?"
"What do you know about black holes?"
The questions came rapid-fire to astronauts Scott Tingle and Andrew Feustel, who stood Thursday afternoon in front of more than 500 Happy Hollow Elementary School students, fascinated by the Purdue University graduates' experiences working for NASA.
"Try to avoid them if you can," answered Feustel, who was on the final space shuttle mission to the Hubble Space Telescope, after the black hole question.
The astronauts' visit to Happy Hollow was part of the astronaut reunion at Purdue this week. Nine of Purdue's 23 astronauts were welcomed back to share their stories and inspire the future of space flight, the Journal & Courier reported (http://on.jconline.com/1qFV91j ).
"By the time all of you grow up, you'll have more opportunities to get involved in the space program," Feustel told the kids. "You can help pave the way."
The astronauts said they are enjoying the chance to reconnect with their old colleagues at Purdue, which has graduated 23 astronauts, including the first and most recent men to walk on the moon.
"When I got the letter that said they wanted to plan this, to me it's always a chance, sort of a mini reunion of some of the astronaut corps that I worked with very closely when I first was assigned with NASA," said Loren Shriver, who has logged 16 days in space and who helped deploy the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990. "Purdue has had so many astronauts graduate. It's an excellent opportunity to reunite with old acquaintances."
Purdue's astronaut reunion features several events:
. Astronauts visited local schools Thursday, including Happy Hollow and Cumberland Elementary schools, to answer questions about space exploration as well as try to inspire students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math.
. Eugene Cernan, the last person to walk on the moon, was honored Thursday at Mackey Arena for donating an Apollo 17 Lunar Roving Vehicle map book to Purdue. The maps are mounted in a custom-made book and come with contextual documents and photographs, according to Purdue.
. The reunion culminates in a free public forum Saturday in Elliott Hall of Music. Attendees must have tickets to "A Conversation with Our Astronauts." Those expected to attend are Cernan, Feustel, Shriver, Tingle, Guy Gardner, Mark Brown and Charles Walker.
John Norberg, a local author and retired Purdue speechwriter, said he encourages the community to get involved in the reunion. Norberg wrote "Spacewalker: My Journey in Space and Faith as NASA's Record-Setting Frequent Flyer" and "Wings of Their Dreams: Purdue in Flight."
"It's really a rare opportunity for people to meet a group of astronauts like this, or any astronaut," Norberg said. "In most places in the country, you just don't. Here in Lafayette, you do. I think sometimes we overlook what a great opportunity that is and how very few people have them."
NASA and Purdue have a "cultural affinity" that not many institutions have, said Al Diaz, who before becoming Purdue treasurer was an associate administrator of science at NASA.
"My experience at Purdue has encouraged me to believe that Purdue engineering will be an element in maintaining the U.S. exploration program in NASA and elsewhere," Diaz said. "That is why I have been so excited about playing some small role in the expansion of Purdue's College of Engineering. I am convinced there is a brighter future ahead for the country because of Purdue."
After his presentation at Cumberland, Walker — who trained crews in space shuttle flights and has spent 20 days in space — said he believes it is imperative for elected leaders to commit more funding to the space program and research that supports it.
"Our decision makers and our leaders in this country have to do the right things, and that is invest in science and technology, invest in education that's going to bring tomorrow's scientists and engineers to the workplaces, to the research laboratories, and into those future projects," Walker said.
Despite the lack of momentum for human space flight at the moment, Purdue continues to contribute to the body of research for NASA. NASA is funding Purdue researchers to create motors that will contribute to the performance of future robots, part of a federal effort to train robot designers.
"The young people are the future," Walker said. "It's energizing and very hopeful to see the young faces, the inquiry, the want to do things. (We want to) to try to encourage them to use their imaginations to get the best education they can."
Eight-year-old Susan Haan, a student at Cumberland, got the message loud and clear.
"You need to focus," Haan said when asked about what she learned from the astronauts. "Follow your dreams and focus, and you'll meet your goal."
Information from: Journal and Courier, http://www.jconline.com
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