Endeavour Astronauts Talk With Tucson Elementary Students

Endeavour space shuttle commander Mark Kelly (left) and Mission Specialist Mike Fincke aboard space shuttle Endeavour talk to students at Mesa Verde Elementary School in Tucson, Ariz., on May 22, 2011.
Endeavour space shuttle commander Mark Kelly (left) and Mission Specialist Mike Fincke aboard space shuttle Endeavour talk to students at Mesa Verde Elementary School in Tucson, Ariz., on May 22, 2011. (Image credit: NASA TV)

The elementary school classmates of a young girl killed in the January shootings in Tucson spoke with astronauts aboard NASA's  space shuttle Endeavour late Sunday to get a glimpse of what life in space is like.

About 400 students from Mesa Verde Elementary School in Tucson, Ariz., stayed up late Sunday night (May 22) for the chance to talk to Endeavour shuttle commander Mark Kelly and mission specialist Mike Fincke as the astronauts sailed 216 miles (347 km) above Earth.

The cosmic call was organized by NASA for Kelly, the husband of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was wounded in the Jan. 8 attack that killed six people. Among those killed was 9-year-old Christina Taylor-Green, a student at Mesa Verde.

"In the last four months, I've come to admire your classmate Christina Green very much," Kelly told the students. "I've come to learn a lot about her, and when I was her age I remember watching the Apollo astronauts walking on the moon."

Kelly said he was inspired by the Apollo moon landings and hoped to help spur interest in space among the students as well. 

To honor Arizona, Kelly wore an Arizona Wildcats t-shirt (a Mesa Verde shirt was unavailable) and he carried the elementary school's 2010-2011 yearbook, which has a memorial page for Taylor-Green.  Kelly promised that he and his crew would sign the yearbook and give it to Mesa Verde after Endeavour returns home June 1. [Photos of Shuttle Endeavour's Final Launch]

Kelly said he has fond feelings for Arizona, and not only because his wife is from the state. Giffords was shot in the head during the Jan. 8 attack and underwent surgery last week, while Kelly was in space, to have a portion of her skull replaced with a plastic plug. Giffords also watched Kelly launch into space aboard Endeavour on May 16. Kelly is also wearing a blue rubber bracelet embossed with the words "Peace, Love, Gabby" in his wife's honor.

This still from NASA TV shows some of the 400 schoolchildren at Mesa Verde Elementary School in Tucson, Ariz., as they cheer when speaking with Endeavour shuttle astronauts on May 22, 2011 during an event. (Image credit: NASA TV)

Astronaut Q&A

Kelly and Fincke also answered some questions about the ins and outs of living in space. Among the student's most-pressing inquiries:

Does the food taste good in space? The M & M candy tastes good, but the rest of the food, not so much, Kelly joked.  [6 Everyday Things That Happen Strangely in Space]

Do they have a doctor onboard for emergencies?  No, but the crew is trained for some instances and can call for help if it's needed, the astronauts said.

How do astronauts brush their teeth in space? The same way people do on Earth, but with no running water, Fincke said. Incidentally, "brushing teeth is important for you guys as well, not just astronauts in space," Fincke told the students.

Have the astronauts ever seen anything strange in space? "I don't think anyone has ever seen a UFO or an alien, but we're keeping our eyes open," Fincke said.

Endeavour shuttle commander and veteran astronaut Mark kelly displays the 2010-2011 yearbook of Mesa Verde Elementary School in Tucson, Ariz., which he carried to space with him on Endeavour's final spaceflight in May 2011. This still was taken from a May 22 broadcast. (Image credit: NASA TV)

Endeavour's final mission

Kelly, Fincke and the rest of Endeavour's crew are in the midst of a 16-day mission to the International Space Station, where the shuttle is currently parked. The shuttle launched into space on May 16 to deliver a $2 billion astrophysics experiment and other spare parts and supplies to the orbiting lab. Two of four scheduled spacewalks have been performed.

Later today, the astronauts will take some time off to rest from their busy spaceflight and speak with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano. There are two Italian astronauts in orbit together on this flight, one on Endeavour and the other on the space station. The crew will also be at the space station during an unprecedented event: the departure of a Russian Soyuz spacecraft returning three station crewmembers back to Earth.

A Soyuz has never departed the International Space Station while a NASA shuttle was docked at the orbiting laboratory. Astronauts aboard the Soyuz plan to snap photographs of Endeavour docked at the space station as the capsule departs to capture the unique photo opportunity.

This mission, called STS-134, is Endeavour's 25th and final spaceflight before the orbiter is retired later this year along with the rest of NASA's shuttle fleet.

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Tariq Malik

Tariq is the Editor-in-Chief of Space.com and joined the team in 2001, first as an intern and staff writer, and later as an editor. He covers human spaceflight, exploration and space science, as well as skywatching and entertainment. He became Space.com's Managing Editor in 2009 and Editor-in-Chief in 2019. Before joining Space.com, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times covering education and city beats in La Habra, Fullerton and Huntington Beach. In October 2022, Tariq received the Harry Kolcum Award for excellence in space reporting from the National Space Club Florida Committee. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. You can find Tariq at Space.com and as the co-host to the This Week In Space podcast with space historian Rod Pyle on the TWiT network. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Twitter @tariqjmalik.