Three Aberdeen High School students and their teacher made a whirlwind trip last week from Aberdeen to the White House and from there, accompanied by Second Lady Jill Biden, to the Johnson Space Center in Houston where they helped welcome astronaut Scott Kelly back from his record year-long journey in space.
Senior Kelly Pysh, 18, of Bel Air, who attends the Aberdeen High Science and Math Academy; sophomore Brandon Casquete, 16, of Aberdeen Proving Ground and junior Sara Decker, 17, of Havre de Grace were accompanied by SMA teacher Yvonne Gabriel, who specializes in advanced placement environmental studies and research.
The four left the AHS campus in a Harford County Public Schools bus around noon last Wednesday, and returned to the school at 7:30 a.m. the next day, having crammed an odyssey of a lifetime into less than 20 hours.
Gabriel and the students said they barely slept during an excursion that included meeting Biden and her husband, Vice President Joe Biden, at the White House, being escorted in a motorcade to Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, D.C., and then flying on Air Force Two, the customized Boeing 757 used to transport the vice president, to and from Houston.
"We watched him take his first step on U.S. soil," Gabriel said Tuesday of watching Kelly's plane land at the Johnson Space Center, the home of NASA's Mission Control Center.
Kelly was the mission commander during a 340-day stay on the International Space Station, setting a record for continuous time in space by an American. He and two Russian cosmonauts returned to Earth in a space capsule that landed in Kazakhstan March 1. Kelly flew back to the U.S. via Canada and greeted his family, friends, fellow astronauts and Biden when his plane landed at the Johnson Space Center last Thursday around 1:30 a.m.
"We were right there at the moment his daughter hugged him and cried," Gabriel recalled. "It was warm and touching, and it was incredibly personal."
The Aberdeen High group witnessed Kelly's reunion, but they did not interact with him personally.
Gabriel and the students, who are all part of military families, noted that sort of homecoming should be reserved for the person's close friends and family.
All three students have parents who are in the Army and have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
"It was similar to a deployment situation," Sara said of Kelly's reunion. "It's more about family when the person comes back."
The group did meet Kelly's twin brother and fellow astronaut, Mark Kelly, as well as many other NASA astronauts and administrators, while at the Johnson Space Center. Biden led the group throughout their tour.
"She was super nice and friendly," Sara said of Jill Biden, who is a full-time community college English professor in Northern Virginia, is the wife of Vice President Joe Biden.
Sara said she was inspired by Biden's energy, noting she had a fully day of teaching right after she returned from the Houston trip.
Gabriel praised Biden for giving the students individual attention during the trip and including them in as many learning experiences as possible.
"We met so many astronauts and so many dedicated people who work for the White House and for NASA," she said in a Harford County Public Schools statement on the trip. "Dr. Biden graciously included us in every introduction, presentation, and very personal tour. Her generosity and genuine care for our military and education was an honor to witness."
According to an HCPS news release, Biden's office reached out to Gabriel with the invitation through the partnership Aberdeen High School has with the National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI), the school's excellent AP test scores and its deep connection to military families in the community.
Aberdeen principal Michael O'Brien said Tuesday that Gabriel was requested for the trip "by name," and NMSI staff were looking for students who come from military families.
"I selected these three as just great examples of students here," O'Brien said of three he chose for the trip.
Last year, Aberdeen High students traveled to the vice president's residence to meet Joe Biden and to participate in a Joining Forces Event where they also met First Lady Michelle Obama and NASA Specialist Kay Hire.
The students who went to Johnson Space Center learned about how engineering, physics and biology are applied to space travel.
"It was cool to see the application of physics in real life," Pysh said.
Brandon, who is learning about human biology, gained real-world knowledge of how a long-term stay in space, in zero gravity, affects the human body. He said Scott Kelly grew about 2 inches in height, and NASA scientists could compare changes in Scott Kelly's body with his Earth-bound twin brother.
He and Pysh said the trip kindled an interest in an engineering track, which they had been uncertain about pursuing before.
"I really didn't think about going into engineering, but after this trip, it got me thinking this could be something I will enjoy," Brandon said.
Sara, while interested in science, engineering and math studies, is still undecided on a career track. She was inspired, however, by the efforts of NASA personnel to improve the world through math and science.
"That's the thing I want to do," she said. "I want to be [part of] making the world a better place."
Gabriel said the students also learned they do not have to pursue a college degree in aerospace engineering alone if they want to work with the space program.
She said the NASA staff at Johnson had a singular focus on their next goal, sending humans to the planet Mars.
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"The mission is Mars," Gabriel said. "We are going to Mars; that was the big takeaway."