AUBURN — NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy asked Auburn Middle School students to imagine they were floating near the gym ceiling.

“Picture it — you bounce off the ceiling, push off the wall and send your buddy floating into the (next) person. Wouldn’t that be cool?” Cassidy asked Friday during a school assembly.

“That’s exactly what it’s like on the International Space Station, except we don’t push our buddies into the wall,” he said.

Cassidy, 44, grew up in Maine and spent six months on the space station last year. He was the keynote Space Day speaker at Auburn Middle School.

Space Day, founded by John Glenn, is an international event to raise awareness of careers in science, engineering, technology and space.

With no gravity in space, “you can take massive objects the size of a refrigerator and move it around with one hand,” Cassidy said. Or flick a Cheerio “and it goes zigging.”

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Concepts of force, momentum and acceleration “are what we’re experiencing on a daily basis up there on the space station,” he said.

Cassidy told students he didn’t grow up dreaming of becoming an astronaut. “I never imagined that.” He spent his early years in the Bath area, and moved to York with his family when he was in fifth grade.

After graduating from York High School and the U.S. Naval Academy, he became a Navy Seal. He was awarded the Bronze Star for leading a nine-day operation in the Zharwar Kili cave complex in Afghanistan.

Cassidy applied to the astronaut program and in 2004, he was selected by NASA and moved to Houston.

“I live in Texas, but Maine will always be my home,” he said.

After years of training, Cassidy was ready to fly into space. The rocket that took him and other astronauts to the space station launched from Kazakhstan. Six hours later, they docked at the space station.

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On board, everything floats, which takes getting used to.

“At first, your legs are hitting things,” he said.

The primary job is conducting experiments and doing maintenance.

“We recycle 90 percent of the water,” Cassidy said. Sweat from shirts is evaporated and the water goes into an environmental control system, “along with pee,” he said. “We pee into a machine. We have a machine that turns pee into tomorrow’s drinking water. Fortunately, it works,” he said to laughter from the audience.

Free time is spent looking out the window, Cassidy said as he displayed photos of Earth from space, night shots of the Florida coast, oceans, desserts and clouds of purple and pink.

“It’s really, really amazing and it never gets old,” Cassidy said.

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‘This is bad’

Halfway through his mission, three astronauts left the space station and three arrived, including Karen Nyberg of the United States, one from Russia and Luca Parmitano from Italy.

Parmitano took his first and second space walk outside the station with Cassidy. On his second walk, something went wrong. Parmitano told Cassidy he could feel water in his helmet. Cassidy made his way over, peered into the helmet and saw globs of water floating around.

Water in a backpack was leaking into the astronaut’s oxygen, so water as well as oxygen was getting into the helmet. “It covered his eyes, nose and ears. Right before we got back inside, it was around his mouth.”

The space walk was aborted, but getting Parmitano inside quickly wasn’t possible; each astronaut was tethered from a different direction, “meaning we couldn’t go in together.”

Making matters worse, light from the sun was disappearing, and water in the helmet cut out Parmitano’s communication.

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“I thought, ‘This is bad,’” Cassidy said. “I remember his body disappearing into the blackness.”

Each astronaut made his own way back to the hatch. Once inside, Cassidy had to wait for Parmitano’s suit to get to a safe pressure level before taking him out. Meanwhile, more water had come into the spacesuit.

“I was watching the gauge,” he said, worrying whether Parmitano would drown or die from unsafe altitude pressure. Within six minutes, Parmitano got out safely.

“It was a scary space walk,” Cassidy said.

Officials have recently identified the problem and are implementing “the fix to all spacesuits so we’re comfortable getting back to spacewalks again,” Cassidy said.

Tumbling to Earth

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As Cassidy showed pictures of himself exercising, he told students the space station has a treadmill, a bicycle and weight machines. Using them is critical to keep “our bones from getting too frail.” When he came back to Earth, he had little bone-density loss, Cassidy said.

The ride back to Earth was a little wild, he said.

As the ship entered the atmosphere, “heat shields on the bottom of the capsule are taking the lion’s share of the energy,” he said, showing photos of plasma curling along windows. That part of the descent lasted 15 minutes, and the G force increased to four or five.

Eventually, a parachute opened. Until it did, they tumbled “like a sock in a dryer,” Cassidy said.

After landing, military helicopters pulled astronauts out of the capsule, sat them in a chair and handed them a phone to call home.

Within 24 hours, he was back at his residence.

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After living without gravity for six months, “I felt very heavy. My head felt heavy,” Cassidy said. He could walk slowly, but could not bend over. It took a month to regain full balance, he said.

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Sleeping on space station: Arms would wiggle around ‘and wake me up’

AUBURN — NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy took questions from students after he talked to them about going to space and working on the International Space Station for six month in 2013. Here are the some of the questions and answers.

Q: What did it feel like getting on the space ship?

A: “If you don’t have a little bit of nervousness, then you don’t appreciate the chemical reaction that’s about to happen underneath you. But you’ve got a lot of stuff to do, a sense of not wanting to screw up. That overpowers all of that. I was excited and happy to get going.”

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Q: After landing, could you walk when you got back?

A: “I could walk right away, but slowly. I didn’t want to move my head fast. I certainly did not bend over and touch my toes. Eighty percent of my balance came back in the first week. A month later it all came back.

Q: Did you feel sick when you landed?

A: “I didn’t have an urge to throw up, but I didn’t feel great. I felt a lazy, blah feeling.”

Q: Was it harder to become a Navy Seal or an astronaut?

A: “It’s apples and oranges. The SEAL training is more physically demanding, especially hell week. How do I say this best? The instructors are not cheerfully wanting you to become a SEAL. Once you get selected to become an astronaut, they want you to succeed. That’s the difference.”

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Q: What do you do when you’re not in space?

A: “I’ve been an astronaut for 10 years, and only spent six months in space. We do lots of different things. Training at Houston, meetings, I talk to schools and communities around the country, sometimes out of the country. I like to play basketball.”

Q: How big is the space station?

Q: “The space station to me felt like a four- or five-bedroom house. There are lots of places to go. You can look for someone for 10 minutes and not find them.” Corridors between modulars can be tight, he said.

Q: What is sleeping on a space station like?

A: “It’s comfortable. It was hard to get used to not having a pillow. And your arms; I didn’t know what to do with arms. If you leave them out of the sleeping bag they wiggle around and wake me up sometimes, but keeping them inside the sleeping bag made me feel constricted. So I was always battling my arms. But no problem sleeping. We’re tired.”

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Q: How much does it cost to go to space?

A: “The cost NASA paid for me to train, launch and come home was $57 million, a lot of money. They’re not making it cheaper. We need to get our own rocket launched with an American flag on it. That is happening. The Ryan capsule is right around the corner at the end of this year. There’ll be an unmanned test of the American rocket in November, people in that capsule in 2017.”

Q: Did the movie ‘Gravity’ accurately capture what being in space is like? (reporter’s question.)

A: “What’s really good about that movie is the cinematography, the way the Earth looks, the spacesuits look, the space station. It was so accurate I couldn’t believe it, right down to where the light switches are, the space suit, the panels. … The part that wasn’t accurate was the physics. You can’t just jump off and float over to another space station. We don’t take a little gas propulsion thing and zip all around and talk about walking the dog. We don’t do all that.”

For more info on Cassidy: http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/Bios/htmlbios/cassidy-cj.html.


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