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Astronaut gives students glimpse of life in orbit

For most high school students, the prospect of flying aboard a space shuttle is closer to science fiction than a plausible career path.

But a visit by NASA astronaut Anna Fisher gave students at Christ the King High School in Middle Village a sense of just how ordinary life aboard the space shuttle can be.

“By the third or fourth day, it felt like my dorm room in college,” Fisher told an auditorium of about 200 students Friday morning during an assembly arranged by U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-Brooklyn).

Fisher flew aboard the space shuttle Discovery in November 1984 as a mission specialist, operating the robot arm for an eight-day trip during which two satellites were deployed and two more salvaged for repair.

Although her unusual profession makes her an easy target for some hackneyed word play — state Sen. Serphin Maltese (R-Glendale) humorously introduced her as “out of this world” — Fisher gave students a sense of just how down-to-earth life as an astronaut can be.

The absence of gravity in space forces the astronauts to use some extra diligence when performing regular day-to-day functions like dressing as pranksters abound even in space.

“There are certain things you don’t want floating away, because your crew members are going to make sure they show up at the most embarrassing moments for you,” she said.

Using the shuttle bathroom, a tiny stall she described as “nothing more than a fancy outhouse with a little vacuum to sort of help things along,” must be done “very carefully,” she warned.

Although the more experienced astronauts are comfortable sleeping afloat in the cabin, Fisher said she had to wedge herself between two sleeping bags. By the end of her mission, however, she was able to catch some shut-eye while held down by the tiniest tether attached to her jumpsuit.

Fisher brought even the most daring aspects of space travel down to the level of the students’ daily lives through some targeted comparisons.

“In the period of time it takes you to change classes, you’re going from 0 miles per hour to 17,500 miles per hour,” she said, describing the shuttle’s rapid ascent into the atmosphere.

Those first eight minutes after blastoff are also the most dangerous part of any shuttle mission, a time when “everyone who is knowledgeable about the space program is holding their breath.”

Everything on the shuttle is color coded for each astronaut, much the way the color of the students’ shirts identified their grade level, Fisher pointed out.

For her school visit Fisher donned the same deep blue jumper she wore in space, only she got to sport a pair of stylish black boots beneath it.

But such outfits are no longer the standard for astronauts, who are now outfitted with a pressurized suit that would allow them to eject from the craft in the event of a disaster like the Challenger explosion.

“We now have parachutes,” she said. “At least we now have a chance whereas before we didn’t have a chance.”

Even when the mission goes off without a hitch, the return to Earth can be a sobering experience following the weightless exuberance of life in space.

“When I landed, I remember feeling like an 800-pound gorilla,” she said.

At the beginning of the presentation, a small handful of students raised their hands when Fisher polled them about their own interest in pursuing a career in space.

By the end, some of the others still were not convinced to change their minds.

“I can’t be stuck in space, unless you’ve got aliens and stuff,” said sophomore Bianca Smith, 17, of East New York.

Although Fisher’s presentation left many students speechless except for the occasional “cool” or “interesting,” sophomore Tosin Savage of Queens Village said it showed her that flying aboard a shuttle mission is hardly a vacation.

“You have to know what you’re doing,” she said. “You can’t just be floating in space.”

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

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