"Begin preparing now" was the message Shuttle Astronaut Dr. Nancy Currie had for more than 1,500 Rio Grande Valley junior high and high school students at The University of Texas-Pan American April 9.
"Basically, it (training) starts at your age," Currie told the students. "You start when you're in junior high or in high school, really putting emphasis on math, science and engineering, really learning the fundamentals."
She also emphasized the importance of knowledge outside of those fields.
"Although all the astronauts have to have a degree in math, science or engineering, there's a lot more to life and a lot more to the space program than that," she said. "It's also very important to have the language skills to be able to communicate those things that we experience as individuals in space. It's very easy to translate the scientific data and to have that universally used, but you have to adequately describe the human experience in space, because there's only been several hundred of us who have ever experienced leaving Earth's atmosphere."
Currie, who is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army as well as an astronaut for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, was the flight engineer aboard the historic December 1998 Shuttle Endeavour mission that began construction of the International Space Station. She said she and her crewmates trained for two and a half years for the mission to connect the Russian space station module, launched two weeks prior to their flight, to the U.S. segment, which they carried with them in the shuttle cargo bay.
Currie gave the students an overview of the 12-day mission, STS-88, peppered with anecdotes about life in space coping with a zero-gravity environment.
"Right now, orbiting the earth, are the first parts of the International Space Station. This project has taken NASA 14 years to start building, and we're building it truly as an international program," she said, adding that in addition to the U.S. and Russian components, Japan, Canada and the European nations also will contribute to the station.
"When it's all constructed, it will be bigger than a football field and potentially so bright that you'll be able to see it in daylight as a star."
Currie was the member of the shuttle crew who actually connected the U.S. and Russian modules using the shuttle's 50-foot robotic arm, "210 miles above the earth."
Other crew members made the first electrical connections between the two segments via spacewalks.
"As soon as those connections were complete, we actually activated the International Space Station for the first time," she said.
"This isn't the end of this mission," she added. "Starting at the end of this year, we're going to have more and more modules. Over the next five years, over 45 of our flights, we'll construct the space station, element by element."
Currie's lecture was followed by a lively question-and-answer period that included topics ranging from how the astronauts keep clean during the flight ("Sponge baths... The best thing about it is that nobody can take a shower and nobody can wash their hair, so you're all pretty gross after two weeks and you all don't mind each other.") and using the restroom in space ("I always tell little kids that the next time you're going to the bathroom, think about the concept of how important gravity is to that whole process.") to how broken bones and wounds heal in space.
She presented a UTPA pennant that was taken aboard the shuttle mission in December to Dr. Rodolfo Arévalo, UTPA provost and vice president for academic affairs.
"It's a little bit worn - it's got 4.7 million miles on it," Currie said, "but it was a real pleasure to take it with us on our mission and actually on board the International Space Station."
She also had a message for the teachers in the audience.
"Don't underestimate the impact you have on your students' lives, because I always go back to my hometown, and I personally thank my teachers for the impact they had on my life," she said.
Currie asked the students in the audience which of them would like to have her job in 10 years.
"I hope there's somebody here who is inspired enough to study and do what it takes to get a job like this," she said. "Whether or not you choose to be an astronaut - if you choose to be an engineer working at NASA or in a field constructing one of these space station elements - working at NASA and working as an engineer is a very, very exciting job."
She urged the students to be persistent.
"You need to have a will to succeed. Eighty to 90 percent of the astronauts did not get selected on their first try," Currie said. "All of us applied again and again. It only took me two tries, but for some of my friends it took them five different tries.... They kept trying, because they felt it was worth it. So if you're ever turned away from something, don't say, 'They don't want me,' say, 'What can I do to make them want me? What can I do to increase my qualifications for next time?'"
Currie also was a mission specialist on shuttle missions in June 1993 and July 1995, logging over the three missions a total of more than 737 hours in space and 482 orbits of the earth.
She received her doctorate in industrial engineering from the University of Houston in 1997. Her dissertation advisor at UH was Dr. Jacob Chen, who is now the dean of the College of Science and Engineering at UTPA.
Currie, who also holds a bachelor's degree in biological science and a master's degree in safety, was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army in 1981. A Master Army Aviator, she has logged 3,900 flying hours in a variety of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft. She was assigned to NASA's Johnson Space Center in 1987 as a flight simulation engineer, was selected for the program in 1990 and became an astronaut in 1991.