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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The topic of the day wasn't exams or equations at W.S. Speed Hall at the University of Louisville's J.B. Speed School of Engineering Friday afternoon. It was robots and rocketships.
That's because Scott Tingle, member of NASA's 2009 astronaut class, was on-hand to tell the dozens of students in attendance what it's like training to be an astronaut.
Clad in a blue NASA jumpsuit, the Attleboro, Mass., native and graduate of Purdue University regaled the students with tales of training in simulated weightlessness aboard NASA's KC-135 "Vomit Comet" aircraft.
"You're doing somersaults, and you're shooting yourself from the tail to the forward part of the airplane," he told WDRB News. "You're forming up with your friends and getting pictures taken…it's really fun. It's really a hoot."
He also described the experience of being psychoanalyzed by NASA officials intent on weeding out those who didn't have the emotional chops to be an astronaut. In particular, he recalled answering a 1,500-question psychological written test given to him by NASA.
"They asked me, at least 100 times, 'Do you want to be a florist?'" Tingle laughed. "And I knew it was a psychological test. I knew there was a right and wrong answer, but then, what is it? What is it? I don't want to be a florist."
He said he answered "no" to the question each time, and when he took part in one-on-one interviews with the NASA psychologists, they demanded to know why he didn't want to be a florist.
"Because I want to be an astronaut! That's why I'm here!" Tingle said he replied, to much laughter from the students.
Tingle said, ultimately, the reason they were asking the question was because they wanted astronauts who would be willing to grow a spirit of cooperation and production. In the end, Tingle was accepted into the program -- and he said he had an overwhelming compulsion to start a garden and mow his lawn.
There was laughter throughout the auditorium.
Toward the end of the presentation, students were invited to ask questions. Those ambitious -- and curious -- enough to raise enquiries were rewarded when Tingle tossed them a mission patch.
At the conclusion of Tingle's lecture, several students lined up to shake his hand, with several stopping to pose for pictures with the astronaut.
Tingle had positive things to say about U of L's engineering school.
"It's a beautiful campus," he said. "I love driving through it and walking through all of the old buildings."
But it wasn't just the campus that cheered him. Tingle said he was also encouraged to see students studying engineering and science.
"I would always promote more," he said, pointing out that American students are competing with students from other countries. "There is a good argument when you look at their curriculums vs. our curriculums, our curriculums are a little bit longer, they're a little more detailed, they're a little more in-depth. In fact, they like to send their students here to get their technical education for that. So I think we've got a really good equation going on in this country for education, but like anything else, we need to maintain it – and anything we could do to make it stronger would really help the process."
But one topic that surfaced again and again during Tingle's presentation was NASA's vehicle for manned space flight: it doesn't have one. NASA's fleet of space shuttles was retired in 2011, and astronauts who travel to the International Space Station must now hitch rides on Russian Soyuz capsules. Currently, Tingle said, NASA is monitoring the progress of private companies that are building manned space vehicles, as well as working on its own master project: the Orion spacecraft, which is expected to be able to take astronauts to the Moon and Mars. The spacecraft is expected to be ready for manned flight by the year 2020.
Tingle told WDRB News that it is vital for the United States to continue manned space flight, and warned of what could happen if it takes the country's dominance in the field for granted.
"It's critical," Tingle said. "Our nation has led in space and a lot of the technology fields for decades -- and we're starting to fall off of that right now because of this lull that we're in. We really need to make sure that we're rebuilding it, and having the right policies and the right focus so that we can get back to a national...an international lead. A universal lead. We can do it. We've got the right people."
Tingle, who himself is still waiting to be assigned to a mission to the International Space Station -- he says such a mission would still be years away -- urged those interested in voicing their support for manned space flight to contact their representatives.
"We are the people. We are 'we the people.' We do control what's going on there," he said. "The best thing that we can do here is engage and talk to our representatives, talk to our Congressmen, talk to our senators, and tell them what we want them to do and they'll do it."
You can follow Tingle on Twitter. His Twitter handle is @Astro_Maker.
Travis K. Kircher is an executive Web producer for WDRB News, and a member of the National Space Society. He can be reached at email@example.com.