Ronald Ernst is living his dream, and he wants students to be able to live out their dreams too.
"You have to do your homework," Mr. Ernst said with a groan. "And you have to study and stay in school. This is the way to make your dreams come true."
South Shore Elementary School students had the opportunity last week to see just how Mr. Ernst lives out his dream. An aerospace education specialist with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Mr. Ernst visited the Crownsville school and regaled the students with humorous tales of life in space.
"The first thing I have to tell you is that I'm not an astronaut," Mr. Ernst told the students, who began to groan. "Believe me, I'm upset about it too."
Imperfect eyesight and his age, 44, make him ineligible to be an astronaut, Mr. Ernst said. "And they don't make double-extra-large shuttles," Mr. Ernst added, moving his hands around his not-quite-slender middle.
Despite missing his opportunity as an astronaut, Mr. Ernst said, he still has been able to live out his dream and study aeronautics. At the Goddard Space Center, where Mr. Ernst is based, employees build satellites, like the Hubble Space Telescope.
"Now when you go home and tell your parents you saw a model of the Hubble, they'll probably say, 'Oh yeah, we know all about it. It was a waste of money. It doesn't even work,' " he said. "Well, they're only partly right. We made some mistakes, but it does work."
The telescope is not working as well as it should because NASA officials put a decimal point in the wrong place, he said. Mr. Ernst equated the problem to having blurry vision and needing corrective glasses. But instead of glasses, the Hubble mirror will get a contact lens in 1994.
Many misconceptions about life in space were cleared up for the students. For instance, things don't float in space, Mr. Ernst told them.
"That's in the movies," he said. "Things don't move until you make them move."
Astronauts also don't wear spacesuits inside the shuttle. For one thing, Mr. Ernst said, the suit weighs 300 pounds and takes 30 minutes to put on.
Brian Coale, 10, had the opportunity to wear an older suit.
"It was kind of heavy on the arms," Brian said. "It was cold inside, too."
Jessi Ringle, 9, slipped into one of the sleeping bags astronauts use in space. She learned that her head had to be strapped down to keep it from bouncing around.
"It was kind of weird," Jessi said afterward,"but it was light."
One of the demonstrations Mr. Ernst showed the students was how the shuttle avoids burning upon re-entry. He held a torch to a square tile that resembled plastic foam and was nearly as light. The tile did not burn.
"Cool," one young man yelled out. "Did you see that?"