Blasting off with Vance Brand: Astronaut inspires Kent students

Students at Neely-O’Brien Elementary School had an out-of-this-world experience Wednesday when NASA Astronaut Vance Brand visited to talk about his time in space.

Vance Brand

Vance Brand

Students at Neely-O’Brien Elementary School had an out-of-this-world experience Wednesday when NASA Astronaut Vance Brand visited to talk about his time in space.

There were “oohs” and “aahs” a plenty as Brand showed the kids a video of one of his flights, describing each part of his Space Shuttle mission from 1990.

Brand, one of the “Original 19” Apollo program astronauts, was in town as part of the Museum of Flight’s 21st Planetary Congress of the Association of Space Explorers. He spoke at Neely-O’Brien to inspire, as well as to pique interest in math and science.

“I want the kids to be inspired and interested in mathematics,” Brand said after the assembly. “I want us to be the leaders in the world. These kids – and other kids – are the key.”

Brand, 77, began his career with NASA in 1966 after several years as a naval aviator for the Marines and a test pilot for Lockheed Martin. Brand said he signed up for NASA’s astronaut program because he wanted to go “faster and higher.”

Though trained as a backup for a moon flight through the Apollo program, Brand’s first space mission was the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz mission, the landmark joint flight between the United States and the Soviet Union, which resulted in the two space craft docking together in orbit around the earth, all at the height of the Cold War.

The flight also was the last of the fabled Apollo missions.

But it was not Brand’s last journey into space. Tthe Colorado-born fighter pilot also had his chance at the controls of the Space Shuttle on three different missions, including its fifth launch ever.

The Neely-O’Brien students were enraptured as Brand described life in the weightless environment of space, including how some of the fun was “playing with your food.”

“You have to make sure to tie your food down,” he told the kids. “We used velcro on our trays.”

He also explained that water forms into little balls that can be chased around the craft and that bits of food like crackers float around as well and astronauts can go after them “like a shark.”

But Brand said the most fun was simply looking out the window while in space.

“You can see the moon and stars like you do on Earth, but they are brighter,” he said, adding that during the day, the sky is simply black.

He also talked about being able to look down on the Earth and said he thinks he saw the pyramids with his naked eye.

“You don’t see any lines showing countries,” he said. “You just see mountains and stuff.”

Brand also outlined a Shuttle landing procedure to the kids, describing a 230 mph engine-free descent in which the shuttle becomes a glider. Asked how to remain calm in such a situation, Brand said they ran hundreds of simulations ahead of time and he became used to it, though he added it was “a little different” than parking a car.

The students also had a chance to ask their own questions, with a few wanting to know if he’d ever seen a black hole (no) or if he got lightheaded after returning to Earth (no, but his legs felt “like they were 100 pounds each” after the weightlessness of space). He also explained that in space, if you try to turn a screwdriver without securing your feet, your whole body spins in the opposite direction because of the lack of resistance.

Principal Jody Metzger called Brand a “wonderful gentleman” and said she was excited to have him at the school. Metzger said physical education teacher Randy Furukawa first broached the idea of trying to get an astronaut to the school, so she filled out a form and wrote a letter to the museum.

Neely-O’Brien was chosen as one of 50 schools in the state to get a visit Wednesday.

Metzger said she thought it would be great information but at a level the students would enjoy.

“I hoped they would just feel excited,” she said. “And he’s a hero.”

The students, many of whom gathered around Brand for a photo, were certainly energized by Brand’s presentation and video.

“It was fun,” said Nicholas Schattenkerk, 11. “I want to do that too. It would be cool to see the moon and stuff.”

Brand urged the kids to stay in school and to study math and science if they hoped of going into space someday.

“School is important,” he told them. “Go as far as you can in school.”

Now that he is older, Brand said though he enjoys talking to students, he misses his time as an astronaut.

“If I could do what I was doing before, I’d do it in a minute,” he said.

Learn more

The Museum of Flight in Seattle has a variety of space- and aviation-themed displays, speakers and merchandise. To learn more, visit the museum Web site at or call 206-764-5720. The museum is located at 9404 East Marginal Way South, Seattle.

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