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Zoe P. Strassfield Headshot

On Hugging Astronauts

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Every time I meet an astronaut, I ask for a hug.

Last April, I was lucky enough to attend an event at the Cradle of Aviation museum in Garden City. The museum was holding a special event to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 13 mission, and Fred Haise, one of the actual astronauts who had flown on that mission (Bill Paxton played him in the movie), was there. I planned on asking Mr. Haise to sign my workbook from Space Camp, but when I ended up talking to him and being asked if I had any questions, a museum employee told me:

"But he doesn't give autographs."

So I'm thinking, okay, a lot of the Apollo astronauts don't, because, you know, having everybody and their sister come up to you on the street and go "You went to the moon! Can I have your autograph?" can get old fast. I totally get that. But what am I going to ask for now? Something personal and unique...

"Well... would you hug me?" I asked, unsure of what Mr. Haise's response would be.

"Certainly," he said, and did so. And so Fred Haise became the first astronaut I hugged. (I would like to clarify that he was not the first astronaut I met, I had heard Dr. Story Musgrave speak at Space Camp and gotten his autograph in July of 2009.)

So that June, I went to the World Science Festival in the city and met Leland Melvin and Sandy Magnus there, who became #2 and #3. Then, at the STS-133 launch in February, I met Jon McBride (#4) and his friend the cosmonaut, whose name I have sadly forgotten (#5). On launch day, I met Pat Forrester (#6, whose picture with me is in the photo gallery for my article on the launch), and Shane Kimbrough (#7, who my mom thought was attractive). And then, of course, I met former astronaut and current NASA Administrator Charles Bolden (#8), who informed me that "Marines need to be hugged just like everybody else."

So why is this relevant to my internship? Well, earlier today, I had the privilege of sitting in on a TV interview with Barbara Morgan, the first teacher to become an astronaut. I know what you're thinking, but let me explain:

Yes, in 1985 Christa McAuliffe was selected as the official Teacher in Space Program trainee. Barbara Morgan was the runner-up and her alternate. Both received training as "Space Flight Participants," which was not as thorough or as lengthy as official astronaut training. After McAuliffe died when the Space Shuttle Challenger was destroyed, Morgan remained with NASA and DID complete the full training, flying on STS-118 in August of 2007 and visiting the International Space Station.

I assumed that "sitting in" meant I wouldn't get much time with Ms. Morgan, but we actually had a long conversation afterwards, and she was very friendly. I told her how I'd seen the video of her dedicating a plaque bearing her quote "Reach for your dreams, the sky is no limit," at the Mission: SPACE attraction at Walt Disney World and how I'd ridden the ride on my 18th birthday, two days after the STS-133 launch.

She said the ride was a lot of fun, and that if someone could handle it, they could definitely handle really being launched into space (so there's hope for me, then?), but that nothing on Earth compares to the actual sensations of launch.

"I know this sounds weird," I asked Ms. Morgan as she was preparing to leave, "but would you hug me? I ask all the astronauts I meet to hug me."

"Of course." She said, laughing, and hugged me. "What number am I?"

"You're nine now." I said.

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