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Astronauts Bring NASA's Magic to Disney
"Five... Four... Three... Two... One..."

A voice over the loudspeakers counted down as the crowd waited in anticipation outside the "Mission: SPACE" attraction at Walt Disney World's Epcot Center in Orlando. Finally, with a thundering whoosh and an explosion of smoke and confetti, a glass plaque bearing the inspirational words of astronaut Barbara R. Morgan was unveiled as onlookers cheered.

"Reach for your dreams...the sky is no limit," states the plaque outside the ride that takes guests on a simulated journey into space.

Mission Specialist Barbara R. Morgan (left) helps dedicate a plaque outside the Mission: Space attraction.The plaque dedication was part of Disney World's "NASA Space Day" celebration on Sept. 10, 2007, in which the seven astronauts who flew aboard space shuttle Endeavour on the STS-118 mission were honored for their hard work in space with a visit to "the happiest place on Earth." Throughout the day, students and theme park guests gathered to listen as the blue-suited astronauts answered questions and shared stories of their spaceflight experiences.

Image right: Mission Specialist Barbara R. Morgan (left) helps dedicate a plaque outside the Mission: Space attraction. At right are Vice President of Epcot Jim MacPhee and NASA Assistant Administrator for Education Joyce Winterton. Photo credit: NASA/George Shelton

A special education session gave students from Orlando-area schools the opportunity to speak with Commander Scott Kelly, Pilot Charlie Hobaugh and Mission Specialists Tracy Caldwell, Rick Mastracchio, Barbara R. Morgan, Alvin Drew and Canadian Space Agency astronaut Dave Williams. Local fourth- and fifth-graders joined students from the Oak Ridge High School Aviation and Aerospace Academy Magnet Program, and the Osceola High School Aviation Academy.

One student asked which was the most difficult and challenging obstacle the astronauts faced.

"Everybody has a different challenge or obstacle that they have to overcome," answered Mastracchio. "One of the things that I ran into is when I graduated from college, I wanted to be a military pilot, so I went to join the Air Force or the Navy or the Marines."

Mastracchio went on to explain that because he has to wear glasses or contacts to improve his vision, he couldn't be a pilot, so he decided instead to work for NASA as an engineer.

The astronauts answer questions from the student audience."I kept putting in astronaut application after astronaut application, and eventually got selected as an astronaut and got to fly in space two times," Mastracchio said. "So even though you meet obstacles, there are always ways around those obstacles to achieve your goals and make your dreams come true."

Image left: The crew members of space shuttle mission STS-118 answer questions from the student audience. Photo credit: NASA/George Shelton

Education has been a strong focus for the STS-118 crew members, who participated in a series of question-and-answer sessions with students on Earth during the 13-day mission in August 2007. The assembly flight to the International Space Station was highlighted by the installation of the two-ton S5 truss segment, a high-tech girder that extends the length of the station's backbone by 11 feet. The astronauts also activated the new Station-to-Shuttle Power Transfer System, which allows a docked shuttle to draw power from the outpost, making more time for station construction.

While at Disney, the astronauts also took the time to answer questions from enthusiastic park guests. Five-year-old Kaitlyn Brown was visiting the theme park with her father, Clyde, who happens to be a NASA contractor employee at the agency's Langley Research Center in Virginia.

Kaitlyn asked how long it takes to adapt to space. "It's different for every person," Morgan answered, remembering that she felt upside-down at first. "But I got used to it, and that's when the fun starts."

The STS-118 crew members march down Main Street at Walt Disney World in Orlando.As the day drew to a close, the crew members served as honorary grand marshals of the Magic Kingdom's afternoon parade. Families gathered on the sidewalks in a drizzling rain along the park's famed Main Street to watch and applaud as the astronauts waved.

Image right: With Cinderella's castle in the background, the seven STS-118 crew members march down Main Street at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom theme park. Photo credit: NASA/George Shelton

Ariel Katz, a 7-year-old visiting from Brooklyn, N.Y., watched with excitement as the crew passed by. "I was out of my mind when I saw the astronauts!" the second-grader exclaimed breathlessly afterward.

The boy's mother, Helene Feit-Katz, said they were simply visiting the Magic Kingdom on vacation when they found out the STS-118 crew was there. "It's a pleasant surprise. I never expected this," she said. "It's amazing. You don't know what this does for Ariel."

As it turns out, one of the major highlights of the family's trip to Florida was a visit to Kennedy Space Center, which is only about an hour away from Orlando.

It's a small world, after all.
Anna Heiney
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center