IRONDEQUOIT — As Bishop Kearney High School junior Vakia Walker sat in her U.S. history class watching the Oct. 23 liftoff of the space shuttle Discovery, she also was witnessing an alumna of the school add her name to the history books.
The shuttle’s commander, Pam Melroy, is a 1979 Bishop Kearney graduate who also piloted missions to space in 2000 and 2002. A retired Air Force colonel, Melroy is the second woman to command the space shuttle: The first was Elmira native Eileen Collins, who commanded shuttle missions in 1999 and 2005.
“It’s so amazing that Kearney can be there and watch this launch in school too,” Vakia said.
Vakia was referring to the fact that four Bishop Kearney student-journalists, Eric Agostinelli, Elizabeth "Libbie" Mannix, Molly Schreiber and Adele C. Smith, traveled to Florida with two school advisers to cover the launch for local media as well as for Bishop Kearney’s student newspaper and for a documentary as part of the school’s media-arts program.
Using media and educational credentials, they gained special access to areas of the Kennedy Space Center such as a spot at the Cape Canaveral launch site alongside national journalists. Meanwhile, Advanced Placement science students at Bishop Kearney participated in a one-hour mission briefing between the space center and the school on Oct. 22. Melroy’s parents, David and Helen Melroy, had spoken to students about the mission on Oct. 11.
Melroy and the shuttle crew’s jobs included bringing the Harmony module to the International Space Station to allow for the arrival of new research labs built by the European Space Agency and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency.
Melroy also executed a “rendezvous pitch maneuver,” rotating the shuttle near the space station to allow space station crew to photograph the shuttle’s heat shield. The mission also included multiple space walks.
Melroy flew with pilot George Zamka, mission specialists Scott Parazynski, Doug Wheelock, Stephanie Wilson and the European Space Agency’s Paolo Nespoli. The crew dropped off Expedition 16 flight engineer Daniel Tani at the space station, where he will join Expedition 16 commander Peggy Whitson and flight engineer Yuri Malenchenko, who arrived aboard the station on a Russian craft Oct. 12. Discovery also picked up space station crew member Carl Anderson, who has been at the station since June.
While in space, the astronauts spent some of their time making unexpected repairs to the space station. During one risky space walk, astronaut Scott Parazynski was tasked with repairing a torn solar wing on the international space station, which had been having problems with power generation.
The students spent nearly a week in Florida, leaving Oct. 21 and returning Oct. 26. The students spent part of their time touring the Kennedy Space Center; watching the launch; and speaking with Melroy’s parents, who were staying at a NASA-provided condominium.
The day of the launch, half of the team went to the Media Center, which is visible during video of launches. The other half of the team went to a nearby VIP guest area to watch the launch.
Initially, the students were worried that the launch might get canceled, due to lingering concerns about weather conditions and the last-minute discovery of a layer of ice on a small area of the shuttle. However, it went off without a hitch.
Speaking several days after they had returned from their trip, the students said the blastoff was very impressive.
“I’ve never seen a launch before,” said Adele, the coeditor-in-chief of the school newspaper, The Coronet. “I think it’s pretty neat having my first launch be live.”
Adele, who was watching from the VIP area, said she still has a hard time describing the launch. All she could say as she watched the shuttle shoot upwards was, “Wow,” she said. Although there was no wind prior to the launch, as soon as the shuttle took off, she said she felt a rush of air.
“It left me breathless,” she said.
The sound of the takeoff reverberated in her ears, and it gave off the brightest light she had ever seen, she said.
“My eyes hurt from watching it,” Adele said. “Libbie actually closed her eyes because it was so bright.”
Molly said she found the real thing to be both breathtaking and interesting. She had only previously seen a launch on YouTube.
“It was like watching the sun rise in fast forward,” she said, noting that the sound was a lot louder than she expected.
Eric filmed the launch for the Kearney crew, and was challenged with keeping the shuttle in the picture frame as it lifted off the ground.
“It was definitely the coolest thing I had ever seen,” he said.
After the launch, Adele interviewed a team of Little League World Champions who had also viewed the launch, while Molly and Eric went back to the media room, which had an array of reference materials for journalists and an area where reporters could edit and file stories. The Kearney students sat next to reporters from Italy. Mark Wazowicz, Bishop Kearney’s vice president for media and technology, and one of the chaperones on the trip, said he was very impressed by how professionally the students conducted themselves.
“It was like they were any other international media in that room,” Wazowicz said.
The students spoke with Melroy’s proud parents the morning after the launch.
“They seemed really relieved that it had all gone off really well,” Adele said.
Oct. 25 was spent writing, editing and producing coverage of the launch, and Oct. 26 was spent traveling back to Rochester.
Eric said the experience enhanced his interest in journalism.
“I have a lot of respect and interest in doing field reporting for news,” he said.
“Having this experience definitely is motivating me to be either a reporter or a producer,” she said.
Over the next several months, the students intend to use the 25 hours of footage they shot to put together a documentary about their trip and to submit it to a film festival.
Back in Irondequoit on Oct. 23, Bishop Kearney’s U.S. history students silently watched the liftoff on digital projection screens in their classrooms while administrators and some 1979 alumni watched it at a reception in the school’s library. There, School Sister of Notre Dame Stephania Walczak, a former teacher who now works in campus ministry at the school, recalled having Melroy in her class.
“She was such a sparkler, and she’s always wanted to do this,” Sister Walczak said.
As the shuttle accelerated to more than 4,000 miles per hour, it became a tiny, bright dot in the sky. After only a few minutes, a camera mounted on the shuttle showed Earth becoming a distant ball. Updates from NASA and the shuttle crew confirmed a flawless takeoff.
“That was such a proud moment to watch that shuttle go up and to hear Pam’s voice,” said Bishop Kearney President Donna Dedee, who was a high-school classmate of Melroy’s.
The event marked the first time junior Michelle Rauchfuss had watched a launch.
“Watching this happen in real life is such a big deal,” Michelle said.
Prior to the liftoff, history teacher Annemarie Sheppard pointed out the cluster of Bishop Kearney students who were watching the launch in Florida. She said later that it’s beneficial for students to be able to connect a shuttle launch with their fellow students and with Melroy, who was once a student like them.
“They are able to see it happening, and they talked (about the launch) with her parents about two weeks ago,” Sheppard said. “That’s exciting.”