James McDivitt Elementary School celebrates 50 years with visit from astronaut

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Students at James McDivitt Elementary School in Old Bridge got a chance to meet Capt. Jon A. McBride, left, a real-life astronaut and friend of their school’s namesake, in celebration of the school’s 50th anniversary on March 23. McBride is pictured with Principal Laurie Coletti. KATHY CHANG/STAFF
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Students at James McDivitt Elementary School in Old Bridge got a chance to meet Capt. Jon A. McBride, right, a real-life astronaut and friend of their school’s namesake, in celebration of the school’s 50th anniversary on March 23. McBride is pictured with Principal Laurie Coletti. KATHY CHANG/STAFF
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Students at James McDivitt Elementary School in Old Bridge got a chance to meet Capt. Jon A. McBride, left, a real-life astronaut and friend of their school’s namesake, in celebration of the school’s 50th anniversary on March 23. McBride is pictured with Principal Laurie Coletti. KATHY CHANG/STAFF
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Students at James McDivitt Elementary School in Old Bridge got a chance to meet Capt. Jon A. McBride, right, a real-life astronaut and friend of their school’s namesake, in celebration of the school’s 50th anniversary on March 23. McBride is pictured with Principal Laurie Coletti. KATHY CHANG/STAFF

OLD BRIDGE — Students at James McDivitt Elementary School got a chance to meet a real-life astronaut, a longtime friend of their school’s namesake, in celebration of the school’s 50th anniversary.

“I met James McDivitt in 1978,” Captain Jon A. McBride, a veteran National Aeronautics and Space Administration astronaut, said during a special visit on March 23. “James is a guy who is right at the top. He is friendly and has good traits.”

Principal Laurie Coletti said the school reached out to McDivitt, who was unable to attend the celebration; however, through connections with the Kennedy Space Center, they were able to have McBride stop by.

Coletti said a number of the elementary schools in Old Bridge are named after astronauts. She said a celebration was held to dedicate the schools with a parade in 1965.

“At that time, James McDivitt came to celebrate with school and township officials and the public,” she said. “The McDivitt Elementary School was the last to be built and at the time [of the parade] only the foundation was laid down for the school.”

Coletti said the McDivitt school opened as a K-6 school in 1968. Now, the school is a K-5 school with 430 students.

“James McDivitt is very near and dear to our hearts,” she said. “We dedicate a lot to him. And with the 50th anniversary, we held a ’50s dance and we are working on culminating our celebration with a color run.”

McDivitt is a retired U.S. Air Force brigadier general and NASA astronaut. During his NASA career from 1962-72, McDivitt served as a command pilot for Gemini 4, a 66-orbit, four-day mission from June 3-7, 1965. The highlights of the mission included a controlled Extravehicular Activity (EVA) period and a number of experiments.

McDivitt served as commander of Apollo 9, a 10-day earth orbital flight launched on March 3, 1969. Apollo 9 was the first flight of the complete set of Apollo hardware and was the first flight of the Lunar Module.

He also served as manager of Lunar Landing Operations in May 1969 and led a team that planned the lunar exploration program and redesigned the spacecraft to accomplish the task.

In August 1969, he became manager of the Apollo spacecraft program and was the program manager for Apollo 12, 13, 14, 15 and 16.

McBride, who said he looked up to the likes of McDivitt when he began a career as an astronaut, is a member of the Astronaut Encounter team at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida.

McBride said a trip to space is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

“A little over 300 people have been to space in the last 60 years,” he said.

McBride said photos of Earth from space do not do justice for what he observed.

“It’s indescribable,” he said. “It’s an awesome feeling being thousands of miles from Earth and the feeling of weightlessness.”

McBride said he was around 13 or 14 years old when he became interested in rockets and the likes of astronaut Alan Shepherd, who became the first American in space on May 5, 1961.

“I knew then that I wanted to make it a reality to work towards becoming an astronaut,” he said.

McBride was born in Charleston, West Virginia, but considers Beckley, a city in West Virginia, to be his hometown. He attended West Virginia University and received a Bachelor of Science in aeronautical engineering from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School. He completed his graduate work in human resources management at Pepperdine University in California.

McBride was selected as an astronaut candidate by NASA in January 1978 and became an astronaut in August 1979.

He noted he was in a NASA class with the first woman to travel to space, Sally Ride, and the first African-American to travel to space, Guy Bluford.

“We had a very diverse class that NASA selected,” he said. “We all flew at least one mission.”

McBride served as pilot of STS 41-G, which launched from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Oct. 5, 1984, aboard the Orbiter Challenger.

“We were the first crew of seven,” he said.

The crew traveled 18,000 miles per hour around the earth.

“We saw 16 sunrises and 16 sunsets every 90 minutes,” he said.

During the eight-day mission, crew members deployed the Earth Radiation Budget Satellite, conducted scientific observations of the Earth with the OSTA-3 pallet and Large Format Camera, and demonstrated potential satellite refueling with an EVA and associated hydrazine transfer, according to the NASA website.

The mission duration was 197 hours and concluded with a landing at Kennedy Space Center on Oct. 13, 1984.

The fifth-grade class asked McBride what the crew did during any downtime in space. McBride said there was very little downtime due to their mission. He said they did set aside eight hours for sleep and 10 minutes each for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

In May 1989, McBride retired from NASA and the U.S. Navy; however, McBride said paraphrasing the U.S. Marines, once an astronaut, always an astronaut.

McBride said his mission to space took a lot of hard work, determination and a lot of training practice in NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, a huge swimming pool, and what NASA calls the “Vomit Comet” in Houston, Texas.

“[The pool is] not perfect, but it simulates zero gravity as close as it can get,” he said.

As for the Vomit Comet, McBride said it introduces astronauts to the feeling of zero-gravity spaceflight.

“It’s not a good idea to eat a lot before [the Vomit Comet] training,” he said.

In space, McBride said all sense of gravity is lost.

“I became two inches taller and I lost eight pounds in two days,” he said. “Your body goes through a transformation, but once back on Earth, gravity pulls you back.”

McBride told the students if they work hard in school, they can succeed in life.

“We may have the first man or woman who walks on Mars [in the audience],” he said, noting students currently ages 6-16 would be eligible. “If so, I want an invite to your launch.”

McBride said the International Space Station represents 30 nations. He said in the United States, they are called astronauts, in Russia, they are called cosmonauts and in China, they are called taikonauts.

Along with McBride’s visit, Old Bridge Mayor Owen Henry was on hand to celebrate with the students, who helped open an April 1973 time capsule at the school.

Coletti said school officials at the time had celebrated the school’s five-year anniversary with the creation of a time capsule.

“There were cassette tapes, letters and pictures of the classes, a teacher’s contract and information about Madison Township, which Old Bridge was named at the time,” she said.

During the celebration, the students received a congratulatory video message from astronaut Scott Tingle, directly from the International Space Station, and the Kennedy Space Center Astronaut Visitor Complex provided astronaut ice cream, stickers, posters and activity books for the McDivitt students.

The Kennedy Space Center Astronaut Visitor Complex and the McDivitt Elementary School Parent Teacher Association made it possible for McBride’s visit.

Contact Kathy Chang at kchang@newspapermediagroup.com.