Pupils Feared for Pen Pal in Space

Times Staff Writer

In the days following the Columbia shuttle disaster, teachers across the country tried to soothe the fears and anxieties of young children witnessing a national tragedy.

For Michael Wittlin’s third-grade class at Rio Real Elementary School in El Rio, it all seemed even closer to home.

Some of his students mistakenly believed that Kenneth D. Bowersox, international space station commander and a Rio Real alumnus, was one of the seven who perished. The students had all recently written letters to Bowersox.


“I was thinking of the astronauts in outer space,” 8-year-old Paola Caballero said about her reaction when she saw the news on television. “All those people were dead and I was worried he was dead.”

It’s not what Wittlin, who teaches in the classroom where Bowersox once attended class, had in mind when he began teaching his students about NASA and about the local boy who went to space. To Wittlin and others at the Rio School District, Bowersox’s success is proof that for diligent children of this small community, the sky is not the limit.

“I was trying to emphasize the fact that this man was sitting in this very same room and nobody knew he was going to be famous or important,” Wittlin said. “It shows that if you study and work hard, you can achieve anything.”

The children in Wittlin’s bilingual classroom wrote their letters to the astronaut in Spanish.

“How is the Earth from where you are?” asked one student. “Is it beautiful or ugly?” Most asked the astronaut to visit them if he is ever in California and has the time.

Wittlin translated the letters and is getting ready to send them to Bowersox’s personal mailbox at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. He figures the astronaut is too busy to answer e-mail. Hopefully, Bowersox will read the letters upon his return and visit the class, the children said.

Bowersox, a 46-year-old naval aviator who has been with NASA since 1988, was known as Kenny when he attended Rio Real Elementary School in the space-race days of the mid-1960s. The Bowersox family lived in the Oxnard area for about seven years while his father was stationed at Port Hueneme. He moved to Bedford, Ind., and graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1978.

John Jarvis, a childhood friend of Bowersox who has stayed in sporadic touch with the astronaut through the years, remembers that he, Bowersox and other neighborhood children would beg their parents to be allowed to skip school to watch the Gemini missions on television.

“There was just a big feel for the whole Space Age and exploration,” said Jarvis, a computer systems engineer who now lives in Pleasanton in Northern California. “I remember him saying, ‘I want to be an astronaut.’ It’s admirable because a lot of us say things as children and not all of us end up doing them.”

Rio School District Supt. Yolanda Benitez hopes Bowersox will speak to the students, either upon his return or through a telecast from space. She said she will contact NASA officials in the coming weeks.

The two U.S. astronauts and one Russian cosmonaut on board the space station were expected to return to Earth next month via space shuttle, but an investigation of the breakup of the Columbia has grounded all remaining shuttles.

School officials said they are praying for the astronauts’ safe return.

“I’d just like to meet [Bowersox] someday,” said 9-year-old Angel Ambriz. “I hope he can tell us about all he did in space.”