Seeing is believing

3rd June 2005 at 01:00
Meeting a real astronaut was the star attraction when pupils visited the National Space Centre. Sarah Farley reports

Just what is it that an astronaut does? We have seen the pictures of men and women in over-sized suits floating around inside, or even outside, a space ship. But in between photo-shoots, how do they spend their time? Pupils visiting the National Space Centre in Leicester are able to put that question, and many more, to real live astronauts such as Dr Bernard A Harris, Jr.

Selected by Nasa in January 1990, Dr Harris became an astronaut in July 1991. He was a mission specialist on the space shuttle Columbia in 1993, and payload commander on the shuttle Discovery in 1995 when he became the first African-American to walk in space. A veteran of space travel for more than nine years, he has logged more than 438 hours on missions and travelled more than 7.2 million miles.

"How many of you have met an astronaut before?" asks Dr Harris. To his surprise, someone has. The answers to his question of what an astronaut does come thick and fast. "Travels in space." "Discovers new things."

"Investigates space." Dr Harris particularly likes that answer.

He goes on to tell how ambition, hard work and determination enabled him to become one of the elite band of space travellers, specialising in medicine so he could become a flight surgeon. It is an inspiring tale, especially his description of walking in space with Earth below him.

After explaining the effects of low gravity, including going to bed by getting into a sleeping bag and hooking on so that you do not drift away, Dr Harris talks about how astronauts train for it. "We go on the Vomit Comet. I don't like roller coasters, they scare me, but this is like a super roller coaster flight, which dips up and down at 900mph to create a minute or so of zero gravity. You can imagine why it got its name."

Gravity is also the reason Dr Harris is not wearing his space suit to talk to the children. "You would need a tractor to winch me in, it is so heavy here on Earth," he says. And where would Dr Harris like to live? "The Moon, because it's close enough to get home in three to four days. Mars would take a year."

Dr Harris's appearance at the National Space Centre was star billing for the Festival of Science and Culture, which celebrates cultural diversity in scientific achievements. Schools with particular links to African-Caribbean and other ethnic communities were invited to attend a special schools' day to meet Dr Harris.

After the talk, the groups explore the six galleries which look at different aspects of space travel. Into Space challenges you to find out if you have what it takes to be an astronaut, with equipment for testing your reaction times, stress levels and communication abilities, as well as the chance to see what living on the international space station would be like.

Then there are Exploring the Universe, and the Planets, where you can discover how heavy a tin of baked beans would be on Saturn.

Other areas are Orbiting Earth, Space Now and the pre-bookable Challenger Learning Centre, which is a realistically simulated space mission. In the Space Theatre, one of the most advanced multimedia planetariums in the world, there are stunning shows tailored for different age groups.

Malika Andress, from the centre's education department, points out: "This day's events and talk from Dr Harris were specially designed for the festival, but we do quite often have other speakers, such as the British astronaut Michael Foale, and we can arrange for schools to meet them."

On the map

National Space Centre Exploration Drive, Leicester LE4 5NS Tel: 0116 261 0261 Email:

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