Astronaut finds that youngsters ask the most difficult questions


HOUSTON -- What would you say if a 10-year-old asked if you were afraid of dying in an explosion at work?

Daniel Bursch has been asked that question fairly regularly since joining NASA's astronaut corps two years ago. The answer, he says, is yes -- the thought does frighten him. But it doesn't keep him from loving his job.

Like all astronauts, Mr. Bursch, 35, has to answer every person who writes to him, from children with questions about space to autograph hounds seeking a new collectible.

NASA's 93 astronauts get about 40,000 pieces of mail a year, and about one-fourth request a personal response from a particular astronaut, according to Barbara Schwartz, a spokeswoman at Johnson Space Center.

Except for a short period before each mission, an astronaut must set aside a few hours every week for answering mail and a day or two every month for public appearances.

One of the things Mr. Bursch learned is that astronauts should always try to end each question-and-answer session on an upbeat note, regardless of the audience.

"The toughest groups are first- to fourth-graders. They ask the toughest questions," he said.

During one such appearance, Mr. Bursch told the children he rTC had time for one more question -- and someone asked if he was scared that his shuttle would blow up.

He answered, and then told the class he had time for one more question, after all. So someone asked what would happen if a female astronaut got pregnant in space.

"I said, 'That's it. No more questions.' "

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