The space shuttle may be gone, but American children need not give up their dreams of becoming astronauts.
That was the message Shannon Walker of NASA shared Wednesday morning with students at St. Anne School in Barrington.
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Walker spent six months on the International Space Station in 2010 and hopes to use the years of training she underwent by going back into space someday.
"I actually flew to the space station in a Russian rocket," she told students. "I had to learn the Russian language first before I could do my training in Russian."
Despite that, and the fact that her liftoff and return occurred in Kazakhstan, Walker's rocket crew consisted of two Americans and one Russian cosmonaut.
Students were full of questions about all aspects of Walker's mission -- the main one being what they could do to have a similar experience.
"NASA takes all kinds of people," she told them. "The most important thing is you have to do well in school. So study hard if you want to be at NASA."
Walker became a physicist to make herself a candidate for space missions. But once she was chosen to go to the space station, she had to learn a lot more that had nothing to do with her physics degrees.
Apart from the physical training to prepare herself for the G-forces and weightlessness of space travel, she had to learn basic survival skills as well as a moderate level of dental and medical know-how to handle unforeseen emergencies.
And then there was the Russian.
"Russian was very hard for me," she said. "I don't have a gift for languages."
She strongly suggested that the students start studying any language they're interested in while they're still children -- not well into adulthood as she did with Russian.
Apart from the scientific missions that were the basis of her stint on the space station, students most wanted to know about the challenges of everyday life in space.
Despite the conventions of science fiction -- which often make space travel look like flying on a plane -- Walker said weightlessness and other inconveniences will probably always be a part of the experience.
But flying through rooms like Superman also provides a great deal of the fun of the experience, she added.
Most of the challenge she felt was in just getting through the preparation training, Walker said. But she did share several ways in which living in space was significantly different from living on Earth.
Exercise is even more essential during six months on a space station to keep one's bones and muscle healthy. But the sweating that inevitably occurs can't be overcome with a shower as there is no running water in space.
Baby wipes are mostly used to clean the skin, while hair is washed with very small amounts of water and shampoo, she said.
The toilets on the space station also require the use of gentle fans and a great amount of care.
"Never underestimate how useful gravity is in going to the bathroom," she joked.
As much as she enjoyed her time in space, what she most looked forward to back on Earth was a shower and food that hadn't been dehydrated.
It took her inner ear and sense of balance a little while to readjust to gravity, and her muscles were sore for awhile from the impact of the ground landing in Kazakhstan.
Still, she's excited to continue being a part of the evolution of space exploration. She hopes that during her career expeditions might resume to the moon as a steppingstone for more distant Mars missions.
Two parent volunteers at St. Anne School -- Lisa Sadowski and Laura Lambertsen -- applied to NASA for the visit. They also arranged for her to visit Station Middle School in Barrington Unit District 220 on Thursday.