Shulman’s daughter wows crowd with tales of space

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After spending the morning giving lectures to groups of high school students at a crowded Queens College lecture hall last Thursday, astronaut Ellen Baker played host to an added guest for her last whirl through slides from outer space.

In one of the front rows sat former Borough President Claire Shulman, whose duties on this day were less than official.

She was serving as chauffeur to Baker, her daughter, who had to fly back to Houston later that day.

Baker has traveled on three space shuttle missions since she launched her astronaut career in June 1985, nine months before her mother was appointed to the borough presidency.

Although she now has bragging rights as daughter of the longstanding first lady of Queens politics, back then she was “just a kid from Queens.”

“I never thought I’d become an astronaut,” she said in an interview while eating lunch in the new science building at Queens College.

Neither did most of the hundreds of students from borough high schools, including Townsend Harris, John Bowne, Grover Cleveland and Newtown, who listened to Baker’s presentation at an open house designed to encourage them to pursue hands-on careers in science.

“Don’t think you won’t have the opportunity, because if you really want it, the opportunity is there,” she told the students assembled for her last lecture of the day.

After checking out slides showing views from the space shuttle’s 17,000 mile-an-hour orbit 300 miles above the earth’s surface — where the lights of Broadway and the George Washington Bridge are visible — more than one was convinced of the possibilities.

“It makes me want to join, because I like space and she makes it interesting,” said Gerta Zhelo, a student at Grover Cleveland in Ridgewood.

Baker’s motivation for becoming an astronaut was not much different.

“I joined really because I love the space program,” Baker said. “I wanted to see what they did. If you don’t work there, you only know the TV version.”

Three decades after leaving the borough for a career that has brought her from Bayside to an orbit around the Earth, Baker attributes her success to a thoroughly public education in Queens.

“I was lucky to have a good education and have really good teachers and good opportunit­ies,” said Baker, a graduate of Bayside High School who also attended PS 41 and JHS 158, and received her bachelor of arts degree from SUNY Buffalo.

She also had a mother who pushed her with the same tender obstinacy for which she is known throughout the borough.

“She always told me I could do anything I wanted as long as I worked hard,” Baker said.

A 1978 graduate of Cornell Medical School, she began her NASA career in 1981 by signing on as a medical officer after completing her residency.

Within three years she was accepted into the astronaut program.

“I didn’t grow up thinking I was going to be an astronaut, because there weren’t any women astronauts,” Baker said.

Her mother was also known for forging new paths for women, having been the first female borough president in Queens history.

Among her duties on her missions was serving as flight engineer, which required her to keep the systems operating while other crew members rested overnight. She also conducted experiments that took advantage of the unique properties of weightlessness.

But the astronauts also have time to relax and enjoy the sensation of weightlessness, which Baker described as “fun.”

“One of the most enjoyable parts about being in space is watching the world go by,” she said.

She also made a few true confessions about life in space.

“We don’t eat the astronaut ice cream they sell in the museums,” she admitted.

Although her career has brought her not only into space but also to Houston, where she lives with her husband and two daughters, some things never change for the Queens-bred astronaut.

“I still feel like a New Yorker,” she said.

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

Updated 10:26 am, October 12, 2011
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