IT WAS ONLY a few small steps for the men and women involved, but it was a giant leap for Scottish education when every secondary school in the country received a visit from at least one of the 90 astronauts and cosmonauts in Edinburgh for the annual congress of the Association of Space Explorers.
An international organisation of 300 members from 30 countries all of whom have flown in space at least once the ASE holds its congress in a different country each year. Last month, it was Scotland's turn.
Part of the event is a community day, when the space travellers go into local schools to talk about their careers. So every school, from Shetland to the Borders, could host a guest. More than 60,000 pupils got to hear space adventures first-hand from people who had been there.
Around 500 of them were from James Gillespie's and Boroughmuir high schools in Edinburgh, where they got to meet the first man to walk in space, Alexei Leonov. On March 18, 1965, when most of the pupils' parents were infants or not even born, General Leonov step-ped from Voskhod 2 and made the first foray into the vacuum of space.
"When I first heard an astronaut was going to give a talk I didn't really think it was such a big deal," says Brodie Childs, an S4 pupil. "But when he started telling us about it all, I was amazed. It was so cool."
Seeing the man himself, now 71, telling of how he returned to his ship after 12 minutes in space and his suit had expanded so much he was unable to re-nter the air lock, made it real to the pupils. The only way he could get in was to open a valve on his suit to bleed off some of the pressure, allow- ing him just enough space to squeeze through.
They were also astounded to hear how close he came to death in 1971, when he was set to command the Soyuz II flight to Salyut I, the first manned space station. His crew was replaced at the last minute when a colleague, Valery Kubasov, was suspected of havingtuberculosis. The replacement crew all died on re-entry.
"He did all these drawings explaining about the different flights and just talked about space travel. I didn't realise he was an artist, which is what I want to be," added Brodie.
One of the aims of the annual ASE congress is to promote the study of science and it is hoped that meeting some of the members will inspire young people to consider science and technology for study and as a career.
The Scotland visit resulted from growing links between Careers Scotland and the association, through such programmes as the annual Space School, a partnership initiative with NASA. It involves activities for Scottish school pupils, including on-line space workshops, visits from astronauts and Space Camps in Houston and at universities in Scotland.
Jill Pringle, head of physics at Gillespie's, took part in the Space School in 2004. "I went to Houston with pupils as part of the Space School project and I visited the Johnson Space Center, ground control and the neutral gravity tank," she says. "It was spectacular. The students even got to speak to British astronaut Michael Foale from the International Space Center.
"It is these sorts of events that are encouraging more pupils, especially girls, to consider physics as a career."
Enterprise Minister Jim Mather welcomed the astronauts and cosmonauts to Edinburgh. Speaking at the opening of the congress, he said: "Scotland is a forward-looking nation, with science and innovation at its heart, and the presence of so many highly regarded astronauts and cosmonauts will help consolidate that view at home and abroad."