The former NASA astronaut visited Berkeley Thursday morning to talk to students about his experiences in the space program.
Camarda ventured into outer space in 2005 aboard the space shuttle Discovery’s flight STS-114, the first shuttle mission after the Columbia disaster in February 2003.
The timing of Camarda’s talk was fitting, coming one day after the 29th anniversary of the space shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986.
The visit was set up by Marjorie Thrash, a sixth-grade science teacher at Berkeley. Thrash worked with Dr. Kimberly Brush, NASA Langley Research Center’s educator professional development coordinator, to organize Camarda’s visit to the school, which was Berkeley’s second encounter with an astronaut in the last two years.
In 2014, Berkeley was one of seven schools in the country chosen to participate in the Amateur Radio on the International Space Station program.
Brush and Thrash worked together to bring a series of space-related demonstrations and activities to Berkeley to prepare students for the chance to speak with astronauts aboard the International Space Station. With the help of the Williamsburg Area Amateur Radio club, who built a radio tower on the school’s roof, Berkeley students had the chance to place a call to the space station in January 2014.
Thrash gave introductory remarks for Thursday’s event, telling students Camarda’s achievements could be their own with enough hard work.
With the cancellation of the space shuttle program in 2011, students have less exposure to space exploration than they did from its peak popularity from the 1960s through the 1980s. Thrash said it still represented a special kind of achievement for students.
“Astronauts and the space program are sort of a symbol of what we hope for you at Berkeley,” she said.
Camarda told students being an astronaut was a dream from his childhood. Joining the American space program requires creativity, problem-solving skills and the desire to take on the impossible, he said.
To achieve that, he said he tried hard in school, ultimately receiving a doctorate in aerospace engineering from Virginia Tech.
He achieved his dream of going into space despite suffering from claustrophobia and vertigo.
“People would say to me, ‘Why would you want to be an astronaut?’” Camarda said. “A lot of you have things that you’re afraid of, but you can overcome those fears and accomplish some great things.”
Camarda told the students about his two-and-a-half year long astronaut training, which required hours of both physical and mental preparation. For every hour Camarda would spend outside the shuttle for a spacewalk, he had to spend 10 hours in a pool inside a spacesuit to familiarize himself with the sensations of being weightless.
After he arrived at the International Space Station, Camarda’s main focus was on scientific experiments, but he and his fellow astronauts found way to pass their downtime. He said an improvised game of football, exercising and playing with food in zero gravity were particularly fun activities.
Although he told stories about the exciting experiences of space travel, Camarda also talked about the problems NASA has faced and how students could help solve them.
Recalling the Columbia disaster, Camarda said NASA engineers had never seen a similar issue before – protective foam impacting the shuttle during takeoff – and did not know how to respond.
While things could have been done differently in 2003, Camarda said NASA examined its mistakes and learned from them. He said students at Berkeley could show that same kind of inquiry both in the classroom and in future careers.
“It shows that you can solve problems, just like the folks at NASA solve problems,” he said.