November 5, 2013

Hometown astronaut shares space stories with York students

Chris Cassidy, who just spent six months on the International Space Station, comes home to reconnect and visit his old high school.

By Gillian Graham
Staff Writer

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.

click image to enlarge

Astronaut Chris Cassidy speaks to students Monday at York High School, where he told stories of pranks, a spacewalk rescue and his acclimation to Earth after six months on the space station.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Astronaut Chris Cassidy poses for a photograph with York High School senior Annie Graziano during his visit to Maine on Monday. Taking the photograph is Matt Prouty, also York High senior.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Astronaut to give free talk in Portland Wednesday

WHO: Astronaut Chris Cassidy, part of the Butterfield Memorial Series

WHERE: Trinity Episcopal Church on Forest Avenue in Portland

WHEN: Wednesday, 6:30 p.m.


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.

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