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Thursday, October 26, 2006

Shuttle astronaut visits Stone Ridge


Catholic Standard

The gym at the lower school at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda was littered with bright pink hues on Oct. 20 as the hundreds of students wearing pink bows, socks and polo shirts gathered. The color was in celebration of the Feast of Mater Admirabilis (Mother Most Admirable), but the gathering was for Astronaut Lisa Caputo Nowak, a Washington-area native Catholic who came to speak to students there, first in the upper and then in the lower school.

The girls giggled when Nowak showed them a picture of two astronauts feeling the affects of gravity. They oohed when she spoke about the dehydrated scrambled eggs, strawberries and pudding astronauts must eat. And one young girl wondered what happens if you get lost in space. But the girls listened quietly when Nowak spoke about her journey of becoming an astronaut. Being in space this summer on the Discovery space shuttle, she told them, was "an incredible experience, and you guys can do that someday." Maybe they would be on the flight to Mars, she told them.


The oldest of three girls, Nowak has two sisters who graduated from Stone Ridge and her parents are parishioners at St. Elizabeth Church in Rockville. She recalled seeing Neil Armstrong's 1969 moon walk when she was in kindergarten. "That's incredible!" she remembered thinking. "That would be cool to do." She didn't really think she would get to be an astronaut, but she enjoyed studying math, science and engineering, and in 1985 graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy with a degree in aerospace engineering. With less than perfect eyesight, Nowak was not able to be a pilot for the Navy but she knew there were other ways that she could get to fly. "If something looks like, 'I can't do this' it doesn't mean it's the end of the road," Nowak said.

She applied to the Navy Test Pilot School but was not accepted. Instead, she started graduate school and earned her master's degree in aeronautical engineering in 1992 from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School. It was during that time she had her first child. "By treating obstacle as opportunities," Nowak said after the talk as she rushed to St. Elizabeth School to see the kids there, "you are allowed to succeed."

After applying to test pilot school six times, she was finally accepted and two years after that in 1996, out of a pool of thousands of applicants, she and 43 other Americans were selected to be astronauts. "You don't have to know what you want to do yet," Nowak told the girls. "But start studying."

Nowak spoke about teamwork, too. On the Discovery which docked at the International Space Station during her flight, Nowak was in charge of robotics, meaning she controlled the mechanical arm that her fellow astronauts were attached to as they inspected the outside of the aircraft. "You always need to work with other people," Nowak said. "It's really important to know how to work with other people well." This is her favorite part of being an astronaut, she said. "Every person was proud of the job they did," she said. The hardest part about her job is being away from her family. The astronauts were separated from loved ones on the launch by a ditch. Nowak waved to her husband, 14-year-old son and twin 5-year-old daughters as she prepared to enter the space shuttle on July 4. Nowak recalled her daughter running toward her and getting stopped by security. That was hard, she said.


With a big blue globe that matched her uniform, Nowak explained how far away the earth is from the moon and how close the Discovery was to the earth during her trip. One small volunteer from the crowd stepped into a large blue sleeping bag as Nowak explained how astronauts sleep in space. She told them about the necessity of exercising in space on a stationary bike in order to avoid muscle atrophy and about how some astronauts become sick when they first arrive in space. Even your organs float around, she told the girls.

Seven astronauts were on Nowak's July 4-17 space flight, one of whom was a German man who was left at the space station. The spirit of international cooperation is alive in the space program, Nowak said. Humans have "a drive to explore," she said. Seeing the Earth from space, without the political borders was "so beautiful and amazing. It could only be inspired by God...The incredible beauty and fact that we can (go to space), be adaptable and explore," she said, is "amazing." And she told the girls, "I hope someday, I can welcome you guys to that space team."

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