YORK — After flying 70 million miles through space and orbiting Earth 2,656 times, Chris Cassidy had one more destination on his list of places to visit: York, Maine.
The astronaut, who returned recently from a six-month stint on the International Space Station, made his way to his hometown Monday to speak to seniors at his alma mater, York High School.
Wearing his blue NASA jumpsuit and a constant smile, Cassidy talked about his time on the space station, the thrill of smelling fresh fruit in space, and the spacewalk that was cut short when things started to go wrong.
They are stories that Cassidy will share across the state this week as he talks to high school students and community groups about his second mission to space.
Cassidy now lives in Houston with his wife, Julie, and their three children. But his mother is still in York, and he has maintained a connection to the community and made periodic visits to the school. Cassidy’s photos hang throughout the school.
“We’re a small town in Maine, so it’s cool to see him excel,” said Ross Hogan, an 18-year-old senior. “We’re proud of what he’s done.”
Cassidy, 43, didn’t grow up with dreams of becoming an astronaut, as many of his colleagues did, he said. He was focused on playing high school sports and going to college.
Later, after he attended the U.S. Naval Academy and became a Navy SEAL, Cassidy met Bill Shepherd, a former Navy SEAL who was a member of the first crew on the International Space Station. It was then that Cassidy realized his training as a SEAL would serve him well as an astronaut.
“Never in a million years did I think I’d be back here in this blue astronaut suit,” Cassidy said during an interview at the school, in a small conference room where his photo hung on a wall.
Cassidy joined NASA in 2004 and made his first trip to space in 2009 for a 15-day mission. He then spent more than two years training intensely for his mission to the space station, where he did routine maintenance and participated in a variety of experiments.
Cassidy launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on March 28 with Russian cosmonauts Pavel Vinogradov and Alexander Misurkin. They were the first crew to complete the flight to the space station in six hours, instead of the standard two days.
“You feel the rumbling and you know you’re off the pad, but it’s a slow push-off,” Cassidy said. The astronauts know they’ve hit zero gravity when a small stuffed animal attached to a string starts to float.
The work is serious stuff, but Cassidy didn’t lose his sense of humor up there.
When he and his colleagues docked on the space station, Cassidy was wearing a fake mustache that looked like the real one worn by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield. A couple of months later, he shaved his head in anticipation of Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano’s arrival at the space station. “Luca was completely surprised,” he told the students.
Cassidy and Parmitano later made headlines together. During Cassidy’s third spacewalk of the mission, the two astronauts had to make a quick retreat into the space station after Parmitano’s helmet began to fill with water. Parmitano was uninjured, but things could have been dire if the water – later determined to be from the suit’s cooling system – had collected over his mouth.
Cassidy showed the students a video that was shot with his helmet camera, showing the other astronauts pulling Parmitano into the space station, hastily removing his helmet and wiping globules of water from his eyes and ears.
Cassidy said his training as a Navy SEAL helps him in tense situations because he can think clearly and prioritize what must be done.
In his two missions, Cassidy has made six spacewalks, for a total of 31 hours and 14 minutes outside the space station, which orbits 240 miles above Earth. The astronauts are always tethered to the space station during the walks, although they do have jet packs for propulsion in case of emergencies, he said.
After he returned to Earth in September aboard a Russian Soyuz space capsule, Cassidy said, he was unable to stand for the first hour. It was a week before his muscles functioned normally again.
Back in Texas, Cassidy was eager to shoot a basketball from the free throw line, to see if his brain could remember the amount of pressure needed to get it through the hoop. It did, but the shot “wasn’t pretty,” he said.
On Monday, Cassidy captivated students with descriptions of zero gravity, the smell of fresh fruit filling the space station when it arrived from Earth, and the close friendships he developed with his fellow astronauts. His account of how urine is recycled into drinking water aboard the space station drew gasps and giggles from students.
“Everyone always laughs about that, but it’s really tasty water,” Cassidy said.
With movie theaters now showing the hit film “Gravity,” which begins as a spacewalk gone wrong, Cassidy has been fielding many questions about what it’s like to walk in space. He said there’s nothing quite like floating in space with only your helmet visor between you and Earth.
“When you go out and it’s just you and your hands, your brain tells you you’re going to fall. You have to get used to that,” he said. “It’s freaky when it gets dark.”
Cassidy said he hasn’t seen “Gravity,” but hopes to squeeze in a trip to the movies while he’s in Maine.
His mother, Janice Cassidy, said she’s glad to have her son back in Maine, if only for a short visit. She still finds it hard to believe that her son is an astronaut.
“It’s something that is beyond your comprehension. He’s had such an amazing life,” she said. “He had been training for this mission for 2½ years. He was so happy and so excited the whole time he was there, I never worried.”
Monday’s visit wasn’t Cassidy’s first return trip to York High School, but the students’ excitement was still palpable. Members of the track and cross country teams had filmed the route of the town’s annual Fourth of July road race so Cassidy could participate from space.
“He’s so warm and down-to-earth and approachable that our kids realize ordinary people can achieve great things,” said Principal Robert Stevens.
After his vacation in Maine, Cassidy will return to Houston for a “9-to-5” job with NASA. He said it could be four or five years before he gets his next opportunity to go to space.
“I’d go back in a heartbeat,” he said.
Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at: