What’s it like to float around inside a spaceship zooming in Earth’s orbit?

Middle school students at Environmental Charter School in Garfield were curious, and on Friday they got a chance to ask an expert: Pam Melroy, deputy administrator of NASA. She’s a retired astronaut who served on three space shuttle missions and logged more than 38 days in space.

“You feel like you’re magic,” she said to dozens of students gathered in the school’s auditorium. “You can lift huge objects. You can do as many somersaults in a row as you could possibly want to, and you can fly. It’s pretty amazing.”

Returning to Earth’s gravity, however, can be a bit of a drag: “It feels like somebody is sitting on your shoulders that weighs three times as much as you do.”

Pam Melroy, left, NASA deputy administrator and retired astronaut, and U.S. Rep. Summer Lee observe a robotics demonstration by middle school students Mason Sheaffer, Sean Leben and Owen Machosky. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Melroy and her host, U.S. Rep. Summer Lee, D-Swissvale, visited the school as part of a three-stop jaunt that included stops at Astrobotic, a North Side company developing space robotics technology, and the Keystone Space Collaborative’s annual conference at Station Square.

At Environmental Charter, the Melroy and Lee first toured the school’s robotics classroom, and chatted with students about their creations. Sixth graders Isaiah Nyandemoh and Mikey Castle showed off a “cops and robbers” game that employed small mobile robots called Finches. The students had written code that remotely controlled one of the robots. The others operated autonomously. The small lighted vehicles sped around on board, seemingly chasing each other.

Other student projects included a model vending machine and robot designed, built and programmed to compete in the VEX IQ World Championships in Dallas, Texas.

Students Isaiah Nyandemoh, left, and Mikey Castle describe the use of a game controller to Lee and Melroy. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Environmental Charter was one of four Western Pennsylvania middle schools to qualify for the competition, which brings together nearly 800 teams from 40 countries.

Once the tour finished, students gathered in an auditorium to listen to brief presentations by Melroy and Lee, and to ask questions. One student asked what kind of music Melroy listened to in space. Melroy described a mixtape she put together for her first flight. It included flight-themed songs like the opening theme from the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” and Tom Petty’s “Free Falling,” as well as some classical music.

Melroy described the mystical moment when music mingled with space travel.

“The experience of just floating with headphones and looking at the Earth floating past me … I was, like, ‘This is amazing,’” she said. “It was the most inspirational moment I had experienced up to that point. All this beauty coming together — the visual beauty, listening to music, floating in microgravity.” 

Both Melroy and Lee discussed the importance of diversity, in science-based agencies like NASA as well as in politics.

People with different backgrounds often have different approaches to resolving the complex issues involved in space travel, Melroy said.

Eight grade students Louise Burke, left, and Jade Hefflin listen to Melroy and Lee in the school’s auditorium. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

“We cannot afford to just limit the number of people who have access to space and technology,” she said. “We have to have a diverse team of people who are passionate and committed, and who bring their full selves to everything. Diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility are core to our mission.”

As examples, she pointed out two members of the Artemis II mission, scheduled to launch in 2024 on a lunar flyby mission. Pilot Victor Glover will be the first African American to orbit the moon, and mission specialist Christina Koch the first woman in lunar orbit.

Lee said that same diversity is necessary in politics, as well as in space travel. Her background has shaped her approach to problem-solving: “I understand so many issues because of how I lived, ” she said. Lee, the state’s first Black congresswoman, grew up in North Braddock and attended Woodland Hills High School. She’s a member of the House Committee on Science and Technology.

At one point, she asked which students wanted clean air and clean water. The room filled with upraised hands.

“Right now, you guys are already who you are and who you’re going to be,” she told the students. “You don’t become things. What you do and what you’re going to be when you grow up — that’s already burning within you. The things you care about are things now are the things you’re going to care about as you get older.”

Isabella Lockard braids the hair of friend and fellow sixth-grader Jasmine Bahar-Robertson during Friday’s presentation. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Steve is a photojournalist and writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he is currently on strike and working as a Union Progress co-editor. Reach him at smellon@unionprogress.com.

Steve Mellon

Steve is a photojournalist and writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he is currently on strike and working as a Union Progress co-editor. Reach him at smellon@unionprogress.com.