Astronaut Chris Cassidy Visits Lower East Side Schools

Photos by Zach Williams.

Photos by Zach Williams.

This story was written by Zach Williams.

As astronaut Chris Cassidy walked through a Henry Street school building last week, it was apparent that NASA’s star power still shines brightly, more than 50 years since the first American blasted into space.

There were high fives, calls of “Mr. Astronaut” and the down-to-Earth gravitas of a man who has the job of childhood dreams. The 11-year NASA veteran, former Navy SEAL and Maine native had just completed the latest stage of a cross-country mission to inspire the masses with the wonders of human spaceflight. About 300 eager middle schoolers responded with glee this past Friday morning to his tales of rockets, Russians, robots, and weightlessness.

Cassidy, who spent five months on the International Space Station in 2013, offered a play-by-play account of his adventure in outer space.

The journey requires plenty of language study prior to launch on board a Soyuz capsule — the only means to reach the station since the 2011 retirement of the U.S. Space Shuttle fleet. But as the 672,000-pound, 151.2-foot tall rocket ignites, more romantic aspects of his job begin. In nine minutes, the environment shifts from the desert steppe of Kazakhstan to the marble-like sight of Earth outside the window. He tested the students’ knowledge of the effects of acceleration and the wisdom of locating launch facilities near occupied buildings. Once zero gravity sets in and rendezvous with the station achieved after six hours, any visitor to the cosmos must learn how to perform daily tasks such as dressing, working, eating and yes, going to the bathroom, according to Cassidy.

“We get some training on it but there’s just no replacement for actually doing it in real life,” he said. It’s like a trip when someone else packs your bags, he added. Then there’s the fun of mastering how to float, though some astronauts must reckon with a bit of nausea at first, said Cassidy.

He had to cope with a fundamental force of physics in order to move around, he told the assembled students from the Henry St. School for International Studies, CASTLE Middle School and University Neighborhood Middle School, which are all located within the building at 220 Henry St.

“There’s this concept of momentum. Maybe you’ve heard that word in your science classes? It’s all about controlling your momentum as you turn corners and not crash into things or your buddies,” he said.

Scientific experiments occupied much of his time in orbit but a 9-5 job in such an unusual environment requires some nifty equipment, he said. A virtual reality robot, for example, allows astronauts to manipulate objects in the vacuum of space from within the relative safety of the space station. They also tinker with satellites coded by middle schoolers through a NASA program. Playing with fire, meanwhile, can be rather fun in the service of science as flames assume different shapes than they would on Earth, he said.

Murmurs arose from the crowd when Cassidy explained that the six astronauts living on the space station must go months without a shower though they can freshen up with some baby wipes. However, the end of the work day provides a bit of time to gaze upon panoramic views of the revolving home planet through the domed windows of the cupola, he said.

Astronaut taking photos with children

Astronaut4

Competition for photographs alongside Cassidy was fervent though respectful once his 30-minute talk concluded. Reporters waited as staff from the NYC Center for Space Science Education — which organized the assembly — ushered him across the building to their simulated ground control and spacecraft facilities. More photos ensued as they showed him around the center where students of all ages experience space flight as realistically as they can from the confines of the Lower East Side.

Everybody wanted time with Cassidy. Whether disabled veterans or school children, the “fundamental curiosity” about spaceflight remains the same, he said in an interview.

“As I go out and communicate and reach out to communities, I realize how lucky and privileged I am to get to experience it myself instead of having to learn about it through others,” said Cassidy who has spent a total of 182 days in Earth orbit during a Space Shuttle mission and a trip to the space station via the Soyuz.

His interest in the astronaut corps arose during his time as a Navy SEAL, which included a deployment to Afghanistan shortly after the 9/11 attacks. He would visit the memorial shortly after his visit to Henry Street, which followed an event with homeless veterans in Boston. Helping to fulfill the high volume of requests for astronaut appearances comes with the job but he had his younger brother Jeff alongside him on this latest tour.

NASA offers the time away from work and, in the case of Chris Cassidy, traveling expenses were paid by a non-profit campaign founded by Jeff called “Spread Positivity.”

“It’s an initiative to do what the name applies,” said Jeff Cassidy. “Instead of thinking about how we might make the world a better place with big event-based actions, think about in addition to that, in a day to day (manner) taking advantage of every opportunity to have positive real-world human interaction.”

The public school tradition of assemblies was one such forum on April 17. This cultural institution can feature programs as different as the experiences of war heros or education on the dangers of tobacco products and strangers. Few would likely rank higher in importance for one boy at the assembly who enjoyed the opportunity to share something with Chris Cassidy as he made his way through the school corridor that day. The boy already had a chance to ask him a question and get a selfie. However, there was evidently something more to say.

“You inspire me,” the boy told Cassidy. “I want to be an astronaut.”