Ticket to space lies in the basics, students are told


A teacher played the theme from "Star Wars" on a piano. A city schools official welcomed a "real live astronaut and role model" to the crowded auditorium. Restless students applauded.

Tom Jones, who will fly into space on the shuttle Endeavour in 1994, came to Baltimore Polytechnic Institute yesterday to show that scientists can be heroes, too.

Albert W. Strickland III, Poly's director, said it was the first visit to the school by an astronaut. For Dr. Jones, the trip to Baltimore was a homecoming of sorts. The 37-year-old Essex native attended Kenwood High School in Baltimore County.

His appearance was part of NASA's effort to encourage bright students, many of whom abandon science before college, to stay the course.

Speaking to Poly's 1,200 math, science and engineering students, Thomas David Jones said he has "one of the most rewarding scientific and technical jobs in the country, maybe in the world."

And, he said, "you don't get to explore the cosmos without getting the basics right here in high school."

"This kind of career is not one that walks into your living room and invites you to join it . . . . It's something you prepare for, and I mean right now, in high school," said the youthful-looking astronaut, who wore a blue NASA jumpsuit and black leather athletic shoes.

And the best way to prepare, he said, is to "take as many math and science courses as you can."

During the speech, microphones sputtered on and off, someone was drilling in a wall, and a few slides were shown upside down.

But the astronaut, who is training to operate the sophisticated scientific instruments on the shuttle flight, sounded exasperated only once -- when he asked for someone to focus a slide.

Dr. Jones has rolled several lives into one. The Air Force Academy graduate spent six years as a B-52 pilot before quitting to attend graduate school at the University of Arizona, figuring a doctorate in planetary science was his ticket to the astronaut corps.

After getting his degree in 1988, he spent two years in project development for the CIA then joined the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, helping plan an unmanned asteroid mission. In July 1991, he was picked to become one of about 100 active astronauts.

He lives with his wife and two small children in Houston.

He was assigned this year as a mission specialist to serve on a nine-day shuttle mission in May 1994 that will use an advanced radar device to make highly detailed images of the Earth's geology and vegetation.

Those images, Dr. Jones said, can later be used as benchmarks to measure, for example, the destruction of rain forests through slash-and-burn farming or any shrinkage of the polar ice caps caused by global warming.

The former pilot told students he is philosophical about flying into space as a passenger. "I get to be a tourist for nine days," he told teacher Lisa Rotunda's third-period molecular biology class.

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