LOWELL - NASA Commander Christopher Cassidy received the key to the city from Mayor Rodney Elliott at a breakfast with local politicians on Thursday morning. He returned the favor by giving the mayor a signed poster featuring him and his fellow NASA mission-mates, but he said he still felt guilty.
"I was going to have a key to the Space Shuttle made out," said Cassidy, "but it's keyless!"
Cassidy made up for it with a busy itinerary for his trip to Lowell, which started Thursday and continues today. Cassidy, a NASA astronaut who's logged 182 days in space, visited the James F. Sullivan Middle School, Lowell High School and the S.
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"We're pretty excited," said Adam Norton, manager of UML's NERVE Center, a robotics-systems test facility. "We're going to be giving him a tour of the center and demo-ing the 'Rover Hawk,' which we're excited to show him given that he's worked with the types of rovers and machines our system's emulating."
Cassidy was born in Salem, Mass. He considers York, Maine, to be his hometown, but he has fond memories of Lowell.
"My father grew up here in Lowell, and my grandmother lived here, so I remember always coming here for Christmas," said Cassidy.
Cassidy is the nephew of Lowell School Committee member Dave Conway, who spent the last few months working with local leaders such as former state Sen. Steve Panagiotakos, state Sen. Eileen Donoghue and UMass Lowell Chancellor Marty Meehan to organize Cassidy's visit.
"When he was in the Space Station, he Skyped with the family and told me, 'Don't forget Dave: when I come back, I want to come to Lowell,'" said Conway. "This is an opportunity that not a lot of kids have, to listen to someone who's an active astronaut who can share these incredible experiences."
Cassidy spent 10 years as a member of the Navy SEALs before he was selected by NASA in 2004. His first mission was a 16-day trip on the Space Shuttle Endeavour in July 2009 to assist assembling a section of the International Space Station. He then went back into space on March 28, 2013, when he began a 166-day stay at the Station.
He said that on the Station, you have a regular Monday-to-Friday work week, with a half day of working and cleaning on Saturday and a day off on Sunday. Cassidy said that 60 percent of work time is devoted to experiments, with large portions of the remainder allocated toward maintenance and exercise.
"If you went up and did nothing (for exercise), your major load-bearing muscles like your butt and your back would atrophy significantly," said Cassidy. "But we have great exercise equipment up there now, so you can pretty much keep yourself at the same muscle level you launched at."
During his NASA career, Cassidy has done six spacewalks totaling 31 hours and 14 minutes. He said that between suit assembly and the gradual adjustment to the outside pressure, it can take up to five hours just to get outside the ship. And then once you're out there, you don't come in for another six or seven hours.
But according to him, it's not quite like what you saw in Gravity.
"They did an amazing job of researching what everything actually looks like - the inside of the Space Station, the instruction books, the buttons on the suit," said Cassidy. "But the physics of it was basically impossible. You can't just go from one station to another by nudging yourself toward it."
For Cassidy's trip to the McAuliffe School (named for the Concord, N.H., teacher who died in the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger explosion), the third- and fourth-grade chorus sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" and the school theme song for him. Cassidy walked them through the entire launch process and tried to inspire them to be excited about space by using accessible comparisons, like comparing the Space Shuttle to a big pickup truck or the cockpit to a smart car.
Then, students lined up and asked him questions they had prepared in class about what it was like to be an astronaut. The school prepared for weeks for his visit, with students learning about astronauts and making signs for him titled "Rocket Man."
"I think one of the things that is really important is that if you're well informed, it's easier for you to be excited about something," said McAuliffe Principal Nan Murphy. "And anyone can relate to the dream of going to space."
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