BRIGHTON — Shuttle astronaut Pamela Melroy came to Our Lady of Mercy High School looking for potential Martians.
“There is some person between 5 and 25 right now who will be the first person on Mars, and I’m hoping it’s one of you,” she told an assembly of Mercy students and visitors to the school Sept. 17.
An air force colonel, Melroy herself has realized something of the hope that she held out to the Mercy students. She’s a 1975 graduate of St. Louis School in Pittsford, a 1979 graduate of Bishop Kearney High School in Irondequoit — and a veteran of two trips to space.
“I’m too old to go to Mars, but maybe someone will come from Mercy,” she said during a press conference prior to the assembly presentation.
Melroy served as the pilot on two flights: on Discovery for the shuttle program’s 100th flight in 2000, and on Atlantis in 2002. She’s logged more than 562 hours in space, and is also a veteran of the U.S. invasion of Panama and of the Persian Gulf War. She is slated to fly next as a commander of a shuttle mission, she said.
Melroy noted that NASA has been doing its best to recover from the Feb. 1, 2003, breakup of the Columbia shuttle as it re-entered the earth’s atmosphere.
“The loss of several close friends was devastating to all of us,” she said. The space agency has worked to improve the shuttle’s video-monitoring system, among other steps it has taken to ensure the integrity of the shuttle and the safety of its crew, she said.
“We have tried to wring every piece of information out of that accident,” she noted.
During her presentation before the students, Melroy told them she’s been obsessed with flight since her childhood.
“Just to be among the clouds is the most peaceful thing that I’ve experienced,” she said.
She narrated video footage of her 2002 flight to the International Space Station. She described the incredible forces the crew experiences upon take-off, as well as what it’s like to orbit the earth.
“Every 45 minutes, you get a sunrise and a sunset,” she said.
Her audience was clearly awed by the footage of the earth below the orbiting shuttle. Many members “oohed” and “aahed” when Melroy noted a group of tiny orange-colored flashes were actually thunderstorms taking place below on earth.
Melroy used gentle humor in her presentation, showing footage of crew members making bizarre hand gestures “to appease the evil space gods” before astronauts went on space walks, and showing several images of food and other items floating around in the shuttle’s weightless environment.
She noted that returning to earth is “a drag” — literally. Astronauts live in a weightless environment for several days, where one’s heart doesn’t have to work as hard as on earth, and large objects can be moved with the mere push of a finger, she said.
“When you come back into gravity, you feel like you weigh a million pounds,” she said. She noted that for some time after coming back to earth, astronauts are clumsy as they readjust.
“They keep dropping things — they forget that they don’t float,” she said.
During a question-and-answer session, the astronaut told her audience that the food she ate in space is like food on earth, but, for reasons not yet understood, not all of it tastes good.
“Chocolate tastes terrible,” she said.
She also encouraged the students to consider a career in space, and said some of them might already be developing the skills to fly 17,500 miles per hour in a shuttle.
“If you’re good at video games, you’d probably be good at flying the shuttle,” Melroy said.
Melroy was joined in her presentation by Pittsford native Dawn Seymour, one of the first women to fly B-17 planes — the legendary Flying Fortresses — in the 1940s. Melroy noted that women like Seymour paved the way for women like her in the world of flight. Seymour flew planes carrying men training to be gunners, and told the Mercy audience that they could achieve their dreams as she did.
“My message to you is try,” she said. “Don’t be afraid, and you will find, with a good attitude, people will help you find your way.”