TUCSON – Elementary school classmates of the youngest victim of the January shootings in Tucson chatted Sunday with space shuttle Endeavour astronauts in orbit, with the shuttle commander saying their fallen classmate inspired him.
Endeavour commander Mark Kelly, the husband of wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords who represents a district that includes Tucson, even surprised students with a spinning-in-zero-gravity edition of their 2010-2011 Mesa Verde Mountain Lion yearbook that he took into space. It will be autographed by the entire crew.
He highlighted the pages dedicated to 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green, who was killed in the shooting.
"I've come to admire her very much," Kelly said, answering a question about how he got interested in space, by mentioning the fallen girl. He pointed out that he was Christina-Taylor's age when Apollo astronauts inspired him. He went out of his way twice to mention Christina-Taylor.
For students at Mesa Verde Elementary School in Tucson, it was an unusual time to come to school: Sunday night. But it was an even more unusual school activity: Making a long distance call 216 miles straight up. They were delayed by 20 minutes of technical problems, but still got nearly half an hour of questions to Kelly and space shuttle astronaut Mike Fincke.
The special educational event was set up by Kelly.
Breanna Loving, a 10-year-old fourth-grader, asked her question about the longest Fincke had been in space (two six-month stints) but was pretty nervous doing so.
"When I was up there asking the question I had giant butterflies," she said afterward. "I thought to myself this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, don't mess it up."
Breanna credited Christina-Taylor with giving the small school this opportunity.
Rob Mejias, father of two students at the school, said: "It's unfortunate that a tragedy had to happen for something like this to occur. It was just amazing that everyone could come together and set differences aside and be one."
But for the kids, most of the questions were about more down-to-Earth matters. One boy's question had Kelly finding common ground with the students calling up from Earth: he loves candy, but the rest of the food up in orbit might as well be dished out by a school cafeteria.
A boy named Corbin asked: "Does the food taste good in space?"
So Kelly, who got fed candy in zero-gravity tosses from Fincke while waiting for the technical problems to be fixed, burst the culinary bubble.
"We've got some M&Ms right here, those taste pretty good," Kelly said. "The rest of it? Not so good."
Third-grader Sophie Mejias found that funny. She could relate because she doesn't like her school cafeteria's hot dogs.
When a boy named Diego asked if they had seen anything strange in space, it was Mike Fincke's turn to answer in the negative.
"I can't say that I've ever seen anything strange, but that's a good question. One of the reasons we're up here is to explore new things," Fincke said. "I don't think anybody up here has ever seen a UFO, but we're keeping our eyes open."
When one of the youngest students, a girl named Tessa, asked how you become an astronaut, Kelly had an answer tailor-made for the teachers in the audience: Do well in school. He pointed out that Fincke had gone to both Stanford and MIT.
"It really is worth your time to work really, really hard, do your homework and listen to your teachers," Kelly said.
Monday is a scheduled day off for Endeavour's six-man crew. Mission controllers gave the astronauts an extra hour of sleeping, then waking them to the Foo Fighters' song: "Times Like These." The first line of the chorus is "It's times like these you learn to live again."