Saturday October 20, 2012

STOCKBRIDGE -- Before rapt audiences of students at Berkshire Country Day School, NASA astronaut Dan Burbank, who commanded the International Space Station from last November to April, offered a video-enhanced tour of life aboard the spacecraft.

The visit to the Friday afternoon groups of pre-schoolers through third-graders, and fourth- through ninth-graders, was arranged by James and Kim Taylor, whose twin sons, Rufus and Henry, 11, are sixth-graders at BCD.

Burbank, a guitar player and longtime Taylor fan, forged the connection with the singer-songwriter when, prior to launch, NASA officials asked him whether there was someone famous he'd like to talk to during the mission.

"I really didn't take the question too seriously, but it was an obvious answer for me," he told the students. "if I could talk to anybody in the musical world, it would be James Taylor."

The surprise result was a 90-minute, two-way Skype session last Jan. 30 between Taylor, his family and friends, and the space station.

"It was an absolute treat, but it was terrifying," said Burbank. "It's an easy thing to climb aboard a rocket, it's another thing entirely to look at your musical idol you've known about and followed your entire life, and then be asked to play guitar with him."

They collaborated on "Secret ‘O Life," Burbank's favorite Taylor composition.


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"Sometimes when you're really lucky, you get to talk to the person who meant the most to you growing up, as a musician," Burbank told the younger BCD schoolkids.

Nearly every hand went up when Burbank asked them how many wanted to fly in space. Burbank told them that when he was their age, he didn't want to fly in space "because I wasn't smart enough to do that."

"All of you here right now have no idea what you're capable of," he said. "You have no idea how bright and wonderful the future is for you, and the most important thing is to believe in yourself and believe in what you can do."

"Nothing I ever did in my life I did right the first time," Burbank exhorted the students. "I always had to try again, so work hard, be good at what you do, and don't give up."

Burbank regaled the students with dramatic, colorful photos taken from the space station, including visually stunning shots of the Pyramids, vast deserts, lit-up cities and towns, comets, the northern and southern lights, sandstorms, volcanos and hurricanes. He also showed video of the crew eating in a no-gravity environment and coping with the challenge of drinking water.

He displayed images of space-station windows with special cameras so he could see from Massachusetts to California at one time during the mission -- "my favorite place to hang out and a really good place to play guitar, too."

Oohs and ahs greeted the photos, while laughter ruled when he showed video of the crew's antics coping with weightlessness and eating with floating utensils.

Burbank explained that despite six months of no showers, the astronauts are able to "clean up pretty quick" with soapy hand towels.

When asked by a pre-schooler "how do you go to the bathroom," amid gales of laughter, Burbank explained that the lack of gravity requires a machine with air flow "that does exactly what gravity does, by air."

In an interview with The Eagle before his BCD appearance, Burbank acknowledged he'd love to return to the space station.

"It's a wonderful, spectacular, magical place to be," Burbank emphasized.

Since his return, Burbank has gone through six months of physical reconditioning, debriefings, preparation of a crew report and visiting partner space centers around the world.

He serves as a goodwill ambassador for NASA at public speaking engagements in schools.

"To be able to tell the story, show the schoolkids what it's like to look at this magnificent planet from the vantage point of space makes for a very easy, very palatable and exciting story for kids."

Burbank noted that he's in better physical shape now than before the launch, "but I've got to admit when you first come back, gravity is oppressive."

Weightlessness makes everything so easy to in space, he explained, but upon return, "it's easy to move around but it's not easy to move around for a long period of time. That takes a little getting used to."

He's now a long-distance runner again, 12 miles a day.

Asked about the willingness of Congress and the public to continue supporting funds for space exploration, Burbank observed that the NASA budget amounts to $50 or $60 a year -- "a couple of supreme pizzas."

To contact Clarence Fanto: cfanto@berkshireeagle.com or (413) 496-6247. On Twitter: @BE_cfanto.