Thanks to an energetic educator and state-of-the-art teleconferencing equipment, adult learners had the opportunity to learn from NASA engineer Richard Morency and astronaut Dan Barry, noted for clocking the longest space walk in history.
Held at the college's Adult Learning Center (ALC), located in the Picknelly Adult and Family Education Center (PAFEC) in Holyoke, the event brought Morency via live videoconference from his office at NASA's Aerospace Technologist-Human Machine Interaction Department in Houston. Barry, a South Hadley resident, appeared in person.
ALC Coordinator Aliza Ansell arranged the session for the 40 adult learners who had been studying a science component that focused on the solar system, space walks and astronomy. Also in attendance were Smith College engineering students from Professor Thomas Gralinski's Science Outreach program, who were invited by Ansell.
Morency spoke about his work designing space suits, working with robotics and preparing astronauts for the dangerous work of spacewalking.
Barry, an astronaut for 13 years, has gone on three shuttle missions, twice in Discovery and once in Endeavor. He has participated in four space walks at the International Space Station.
"The students were fascinated to learn the depths of the NASA program," Ansell said. "Richard showed pictures of how they do a mock-up under water in a neutral buoyancy lab to prepare astronauts and he answered many of their questions. I think the fact that they had been studying this already made it even more interesting for them."
Morency said he became acquainted with Ansell a few years ago when his sister, a Mt. Holyoke College student at the time, tutored for the ALC program. Morency agreed to participate in a videoconference a few years ago that was held at Mt. Holyoke. Ansell's students attended. At that time, Morency expressed an interest in maintaining the connection with the ALC program.
Ansell said when they came upon the science curriculum this semester she thought of Morency's offer. Since the ALC had relocated into the state-of-the-art PAFEC center, Ansell said this time they could set up their own videoconference and do more than a simple Q and A session.
Morency said the students were eager to learn as much as they could about the International Space Station and NASA.
"They asked a range of questions, from basic ones, like how does it feel to float in space, to how do they use the bathroom, to some very pointed ones on how do astronauts keep warm and how does space affect movement," said Morency, who started his career in biomechanics studying the effect of roller coasters on people. "I wanted to share with them that you don't have to be some out-of-reach rocket-scientist type of engineer guy to work at NASA. I started out as a guy who was fascinated by roller coasters. I never dreamed I'd be working at NASA some day."
Ansell said she was able to invite Barry through a connection at Smith College. The students were fascinated by Barry's work as an astronaut, and even more moved by his stirring account of how he faced rejection 14 times before being accepted into the space program.
Barry said that for many years people told him he would never be an astronaut, that he wasn't smart enough or strong enough. He encouraged the students to do as he did, to not listen to the doubters, and to keep trying in spite of the rejections. "Your dream can come true," Barry told the ALC students.
Ansell said her students still speak of Barry's story as a motivator in their own lives, propelling them to earn their GED's and continue with their education.
"For someone to stand up and continue on in the face of all that rejection, that blew them away. That story now comes up in their writing, in their conversations. It was a lesson they really hung on to," Ansell said.
Photo: HCC/ALC student Christian Mulero with Astronaut Dan Barry