What's worse: hurling through the sky more than 20 times the speed of sound or speaking to an auditorium filled with teen-agers, some of whom are waiting for a chance to land a verbal barb? For NASA astronaut Charles Lacy Veach, danger lies in both ventures.
Discarding his gawky, pumpkin-colored astronaut suit for a blue-cardigan sweater and other teacher-like attire, Veach captivated Orange County students Thursday in a daylong speaking engagement designed to show off the glories of space and to encourage the youngsters to think about science careers.
"I'm just an average sort of person," Veach told students at Anaheim High School, his first stop. "I'm not any smarter than any of you out there, maybe a little more stubborn." Veach was a mission specialist on the space shuttle's 40th mission, an eight-day trip last April that included a look at the aurora australis (the Earth's southern lights), a bird's-eye view of Los Angeles and a glimpse of the vast Himalayas. He also had space shots of Kuwait and its burning oil wells after Iraq had invaded the small country.
At first, students at Anaheim were full of wisecracks and nervous chuckles when they were introduced to the astronaut. But the noise lessened considerably when Veach turned on television sets and showed videos shot in space. Veach, who is scheduled to be aboard the Discovery for another launch in the fall, narrated the video and slides. With Veach's help, the students explored space.
Some shots were stunningly beautiful, such as the Australian desert and the world's highest peaks. Others depressing. There were scenes of thousands of trees burning in the Amazon Forest; smog made skies seem dingy and unclean.
"We see a lot of problems of Earth as we fly over it," Veach said. "We look to you guys to take on the problems and to take on science and technology to help us live in better harmony."
Many students were stunned by man's encroachment on nature.
"I was seeing the planet just the way the astronauts saw it up there," said Brandi Burns, 17. "I can see that we're destroying it."
Veach also shared lighter moments, such as how the astronauts prepared meals of peanut butter-and-jelly burritos. Because bread does not stay fresh in space, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration decided that tortillas were better for the crew members. The astronauts also demonstrated how zero-gravity gives them a chance to drink bubbles of lemonade and fruit punch in mid-air. There were even goofy images such as a lost sock floating past the cameras.
"If it's not nailed down, it floats away," he told the students.
Veach said the seven-man crew worked almost entirely on the shuttle's flight deck, which is the same size as one on a large airline.
"When you have seven folks in the crew, it gets pretty darn cozy," Veach said. "It was like camping out."
He told of days in which he watched 16 sunrises and sunsets and how the shuttle could glide over San Francisco and Los Angeles in less than 1 1/2 minutes.
At one point, Veach gave the students an impromptu geography quiz. He showed a picture of a clear-looking city and asked students to name it. Nobody recognized it. It was Los Angeles on a rare, almost smogless day.
For some students, space suddenly seemed closer.
"It seems so reachable," said Mihaela Stoica, 18, a senior. "I've always looked at the sky and wondered what exactly is up there. I've thought about what the world would look like if I was up there."