BELENThere was a “special landing” in Belen last month as a former NASA astronaut visited students at Dennis Chavez Elementary to share his space adventures. 

Duane “Digger” Carey spent the day at DCE on Monday, Dec. 4, sharing his first-hand experiences in piloting a crew on the STS-109 Columbia for 10 days in space to update and repair the Hubble Telescope. He also shared his educational experience from elementary school through college, and the struggles he faced and overcame to get to a career as a fighter pilot and then a NASA astronaut. He spoke about the future of NASA missions and the space program, and answered student questions. 

“In school and life it’s a lot more fun when you know what to expect. When you have skills, it’s more fun,” Carey told a group of third and fourth-graders. “Sometimes I’m asked, ‘Space looks pretty fun. What can I learn to do that?’” 

The answer — unsurprisingly — was math. The reason was a little unusual though. 

“You have to work twice as hard in math. You don’t have to like it or be particularly good or bad at it,” he told the students. “If you try hard, it trains your brain to learn new things. I call it the magic class.  

“If you want to be a dancer or a YouTuber, you train. You’re not trying to be a mathematician but you have to work double hard in math.” 

Julia M. Dendinger | News-Bulletin photos
Former NASA astronaut Duane “Digger” Carey takes questions from an inquisitive group of Denise Chavez Elementary students during his visit to the school in early December. Carey and his wife, Cheryl, travel throughout the country talking to students and getting them excited to explore careers that could lead them to the stars.

Jennifer Nilvo, Belen Consolidated Schools instructional facilitator, is a NASA ambassador and was able to bring Carey to the district. 

“In the classrooms of today, elementary students explore the galaxies of tomorrow. As they reach for the stars, inspired by the wonders of space and the boundless possibilities of NASA, they are not just learning about the future, they are shaping it with curiosity, imagination and a cosmic sense of wonder,” Nilvo said. “The students we are teaching today are the next generation astronauts, scientists, engineers, mathematicians and more who will be leading the charge to head to Mars, the dark side of the moon and even colonizing space.” 

During Carey’s visit, students were able to take part in the NASA Sparx Program with hands-on engaging STEM activities related to Hubble and James Webb telescopes, Artemis mission and the moon to inspire science and discovery and learn about New Mexico’s night skies through the Star Lab experience.  

The Belen High School and Infinity High School MESA students helped with the NASA hands-on activities under the direction of Nilvo, their MESA advisor. 

Carey’s visit kicked off the district’s month of space exploration and the United States Air and Space Forces SPACEtoSTEM program for various students throughout the district through the BCS STEM Lab and Nilvo, the lab’s facilitator. The STEM Space in the Community program is designed to inspire students about the wonders of space and reignite imagination to inspire the next generation of science, discovery and explorers. 

Part of Carey’s program featured video of him in the space shuttle with the crew as they went about their day-to-day life, which included sleeping tethered to the interior of the shuttle, exercising and eating in zero gravity, going to the bathroom and navigating tight quarters with stinky feet. 

During the question-and-answer session, students learned that a full crew for a NASA mission is seven people. While the shuttle is about the same size as a Boeing 737, it’s sort of like a pick up truck. Carey said everyone is crowded into the “cab” while the majority of the space in the shuttle is used for hauling cargo. 

He told the students gathered in the cafeteria listening to his presentation they were learning skills that would be important for a space mission. 

“You are learning to sit together in close quarters and be polite and cooperative,” he said. “That’s what we refer to as ‘sand box’ skills. You are learning how to get along.” 

Jennifer Nilvo, Belen Consolidated Schools instructional facilitator and NASA ambassador, was able to bring retired NASA astronaut Duane “Digger” Carey to Dennis Chavez Elementary last month. During Carey’s visit, students were able to take part in hands-on STEM activities related to the Hubble and James Webb telescopes and more.

A question that always comes up during his presentations is how do girls use the bathroom in space. In the video, the toilet the male crew members used was shown and included a funnel and hose. Carey said the primary difference was the one for women just had a different shaped funnel. As a test pilot, one of Carey’s jobs was to fly with women as passengers so they could test various bathroom apparatuses  

The questions the students asked ranged from how heavy the space suits are to how does blood get to the center of the body in space. Carey’s responses always encouraged students to think about how they could be involved in the space program in the future, as well as answering the query. 

In regards to the suits, the orange suits astronauts wear for ascent and entry weigh about 60 to 70 pounds, Carey said, and the white suits — the extravehicular activity suits worn in space outside the shuttle — are about 200 pounds. 

“We need suits that are not so heavy,” he said with a laugh. “And who’s going to design those? You guys.” 

When people are on Earth, gravity pulls blood down to your feet and your heart pumps it back up to your brain. However, your heart doesn’t know you’re in space, Carey told the students, so it keeps pumping blood up to your head. 

“For about the first four days, your head feels like your hanging upside down from a jungle gym, until finally, your heart chills out,” he said. “If any of you are interested in going into medicine think about being a space doctor or nurse. We need a lot of space people.” 

After Carey left NASA and fully retired in 2004, Carey and his wife, Cheryl, moved to Colorado Springs, Colo. 

“After we’d gotten the house all set up, one night Cheryl asked me, ‘What are we going to do now that we’re grown up?’” he said during an interview after his presentation to the students.  

The couple decided to combine their love for motorcycles and education and began touring the country doing educational outreach based on Carey’s time in space. 

“When we were raising our kids, we really emphasized the possibilities of education,” he said. “After 22 1/2 years serving, there’s just something about this that feeds the soul in a different way. I could have done things that made a lot of money, but that felt strange. 

“We love coming to places like Belen, to small and mid-sized schools. Kids in places like this just seem to have more work ethic. It’s important to show them what’s possible — if you can see it, you can do it.” 

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.