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Next stop, Mars?: Maine's 1st astronaut isn't ready to settle down

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Next stop, Mars?: Maine's 1st astronaut isn't ready to settle down

PORTLAND — This year astronaut Chris Cassidy spent 166 days in space and more than 30 days in Houston "getting poked and prodded" by medical staff when he returned to Earth.

When he was finally free to go, he returned home to Maine.

Last week, Cassidy made a speaking tour of the state, beginning with his hometown of York on Monday, Nov. 4, and ending in Fort Kent on Friday. Along the way, Maine's first astronaut made a brief stop at Trinity Episcopal Church on Wednesday to regale a full house with his adventures in zero gravity.

Cassidy's tour coincided with news that NASA astronomers estimate there are at least 8.8 billion planets in our galaxy that could support life, according to a report from the Associated Press. That topic was broached almost immediately during a question-and-answer period.

Cassidy said he's certain there is life out there somewhere, but viewing Earth from space also made our home planet seem singular and precious, he said.

"When I'd look through the cupola at the planet below us, it really made me feel how small each of us are," Cassidy said. "I remember thinking we're all 70 billion astronauts on the Spaceship Earth in this big, gigantic universe."

"That's our planet," he continued. "We've got to live here. We've all got to take care of it. When you're looking down at the beauty of it, you see the blue oceans, the browns and greens of the land, the white of the clouds, and it's just so pretty. It made me really thankful that I could go back to it."

Cassidy grew up in York, and graduated from York High School in 1988. From there, he went on to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. Later, he earned a degree in ocean engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass.

Cassidy also joined the Navy Seals, and was deployed to Afghanistan within 10 days of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Overseas, he earned two bronze stars, including one for combat leadership.

"And then he became an astronaut," said emcee Bill Green, to comedic effect.

Cassidy has been on two space missions. First, he flew aboard the space shuttle Endeavour in 2009. Earlier this year, he spent 166 days aboard the International Space Station, which traveled 70 million miles orbiting Earth while Cassidy was aboard.

Being an astronaut is mostly training, Cassidy told the crowd. When NASA accepted his application in 2004, he began a three-year training period as an astronaut candidate, spending most mornings in classrooms and afternoons in flight simulators.

Eventually, the training paid off when Cassidy took his first flight to the International Space Station. In that mission, Endeavour docked with the space station, but Cassidy spent most of his down time aboard the shuttle.

"It's kind of like renting a vacation home – you take advantage of all the wonderful things that the home has to offer, but you don't care about the intricacies of the plumbing or who mows the lawn. It just all happens," he said. "Fast forward four years later, I was a space station crew member living there, and it really was my house. I cared about the intricacies."

However, getting aboard the space station required another 2 1/2 years of training, he said. About half of the training took place in the Houston and half in Russia, with shorter sessions in Japan and Germany.

When it was all done, Cassidy knew how to fly Russia's Soyuz rocket, which has an exceedingly small cockpit.

"When I say small, I mean really small," he said. "Soyuz is probably the size of – no kidding – a Mini Cooper or Smart Car. It's really tiny with three guys shoulder to shoulder."

Luckily, there was room to spread out on the International Space Station, which is "about the size of a four-bedroom house," he said.

During the question-and-answer period, the audience at Trinity was most interested in the day-to-day aspects of life in zero gravity, like the challenges of brushing teeth, sleeping, eating and personal matters. Cassidy said the space station recycles urine and perspiration into drinking water.

"It works," he quipped. "I promise."

Cassidy said he was comfortable on the space station, but there were some things that couldn't be replaced. He missed the smell of fresh-cut grass and the ocean, for instance.

Despite this, Cassidy said he would travel to Mars if it were possible in his lifetime. That mission has to be done, he said, but it would necessitate another trip to the moon first, to test new systems.

Cassidy's appearance was part of Trinity's ongoing Butterfield Memorial Series, annual events named for Lou Butterfield, a Trinity parishioner who died suddenly in 2010.

Ben McCanna can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or bmccanna@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @BenMcCanna.