WOODSTOCK – Middle schoolers visiting Challenger Learning Center got more than they bargained for Tuesday.
The students heard about space firsthand during a visit from Scott Parazynski, a retired astronaut who has spent more than eight weeks in space over five missions. Parazynski – in town to speak at United Way of Greater McHenry County's annual dinner meeting Tuesday night – talked about his time with NASA and answered an endless stream of questions from a curious group of sixth-graders from Clinton Rosette Middle School in DeKalb.
Parazynski drew on his own personal experience – growing up enthralled at the idea of going to space – to inspire the kids toward a similar path.
"Since I was 5 years old, I wanted to be an astronaut," Parazynski said.
He succeeded. Parazynski has had a career filled with highlights. A graduate of Stanford Medical School before his time with NASA, he served as personal physician to John Glenn during Glenn's return to space at age 77.
Parazynski also has completed seven spacewalks, including one that is considered one of the most challenging and dangerous ever, according to Parazynski's bio at parazynski.com.
The 52-year-old retired astronaut chatted about those career highlights but also answered several other, sometimes tough-to-handle questions from a non-bashful group Tuesday. One student asked how much money Parazynski made. Another asked how you go to the bathroom in space.
"We use the vacuum system to get rid of things we don't want," said Parazynski, whose answer prompted more than one follow-up question.
But Parazynski also expressed a serious desire to excite the younger generation toward positive careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. He added that he wants to share his experiences so that students "know there is still a very active space program," despite a national perception sometimes tilted toward the contrary.
Parazynski served on the Challenger Center for Space Science Engineering Board of Directors with now-United Way Executive Director Steve Otten.
Otten was the executive director of Challenger in Woodstock until about two years ago. After recruiting Parazynski for a talk at United Way's annual meeting, Otten asked the astronaut to stop by Challenger to speak with the visiting sixth-graders.
"To be able to allow a kid to dream is huge," Otten said.
The impromptu trip hadn't been on the books when Clinton Rosette scheduled its visit, Challenger Executive Director Chantel Madson said.
"They had no idea he was going to be here on their day at Challenger," she said. "It's a very, very special thing for them."