Local astronaut Randy Bresnik returns to alma mater

The astronaut, who spoke at Santa Monica High School last week on Friday, still considers Santa Monica to be his hometown and has fond memories of riding his motorcycle through Malibu on weekends.

By Jimy Tallal / Special to The Malibu Times

Malibuites graduating with the Santa Monica High School Class of 1985 (before there was a Malibu High School) now have an astronaut among their former classmates. Lt. Col. Randy Bresnik returned to the campus of his alma mater on Friday and spoke to the entire cheering student body about his recent adventures as an astronaut aboard the space shuttle Atlantis.

Among his many other awards and accomplishments, Bresnik, who is 42, graduated from The Citadel (the military college of South Carolina), became a naval aviator in the Marine Corps, attended TOPGUN training, flew 34 combat missions in Iraq, earned a Master of Science in Aviation Systems, and joined NASA after being accepted into the Astronaut Candidate training program in 2004. To date, only 339 candidates have been chosen out of thousands of applications for the program since 1959, when the “Original Seven” were selected.

Bresnik’s first flight as an astronaut took place November of last year. He served as a mission specialist with five other crew members to deliver thousands of pounds of parts, supplies and equipment to the International Space Station during a 13-day mission.

In describing what it was like, Bresnik said, “After the launch, the first thing you have to get used to is the view. Imagine your whole vision being filled with the curvature of the earth. It was absolutely mesmerizing. Continents look like islands.”

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Bresnik said it took a conscious effort for the crew to look away from the view and focus on the tasks at hand. “When you look at the thinness of our atmosphere through the sunrise, you see how fragile our ecosystem is.”

Working in space also requires adjusting to zero gravity and weightlessness. “There’s Velcro all over the orbiter and attached to just about every object just to keep stuff from floating off,” Bresnik said, explaining that the crew had to learn to use their hands to hold on to things as they move from place to place. When the crew has meetings, they have to keep their feet tucked under something in order to stay facing each other. Weightlessness works to their advantage, however, when it comes to moving large loads that would weigh thousands of pounds back on earth. “You feel like Superman,” he said.

The crew also had fun with zero gravity. “You never see astronauts not smiling up in space. We worked hard and we played hard. M&M’s were meant for space,” Bresnik said jokingly.

Videos during Friday’s presentation showed astronauts letting their food and water float in blobs, while they tried to eat it from mid-air. They demonstrated that trying to consume a three-course meal is a real juggling act without Velcro-while eating one course the other two food containers begin floating away.

On flight day three, the crew reached the space station, “a marvel of humankind that was assembled in space from parts made all over the world.” Bresnik completed two space walks lasting a total of 12 hours, using robotic arms to deliver materials from the orbiter to the space station. This made him part of a very elite group of “190 people in the history of the earth that have walked in space,” he said. The night after his first space walk, Bresnik’s second child, Abigail, was born back in Texas. To celebrate, he passed out bubblegum cigars to his crewmates. The birth was widely reported in the U.S., with headlines like, “Houston, we have a baby!”

It was very important to Bresnik to leave Santa Monica High School students with the message that “anything in life is possible … what you believe you can achieve” and “life is short. Appreciate the friendships you have in high school and thank your parents for what they provide for you.”

In giving advice to aspiring astronauts, Bresnik said physics and calculus classes helped him learn problem solving; playing in the school band taught him hand/eye coordination; and playing soccer and riding in “bike-a-thons” kept him physically fit-all important for astronauts or aviators. A course in Russian at Santa Monica College during his senior year also came in handy. He said NASA uses astronauts of different educational backgrounds, including “M.D.s and Ph.D.s”; only 25 percent of U.S. astronauts come from the military, and anyone can apply on the Internet.

Bresnik’s next endeavor is to work on the International Space Station. Since the U.S. space shuttle program is scheduled for retirement near the end of 2010 with only a few launches left, he and others needing to work at the station will hitch rides back and forth with the Russians. He hopes the next generation, including perhaps one of the high school students he addressed, will someday walk on Mars.

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