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Astronaut to visit “space night”event in Groton on April 5

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GROTON — At one time, Americans used to believe that the difficult could be overcome and the impossible would just take a little longer. But today, in a more jaded age, Americans have become more cynical; realistic, some would say. Taking for granted their creature comforts and distracted by television, computer games and the never ending celebrity watch, Americans have begun to show less interest in subjects that had once catapulted them to world leadership in art, literature, and especially the sciences.

The optimism toward the future, faith in the blessings of science, and the wonder of space exploration that dominated American attitudes in the post-war years of the 1950s has waned considerably since the days of Chuck Yeager and Neil Armstrong and with 30 years having passed since the last man walked the surface of the moon, Kid Rock and Snoop Doggy Dog have replaced men such as pilot, scientist, and author Story Musgrave as heroes in the minds of young people.

What can be done to change that trend?

One local resident has recognized the problem of declining interest in science and decided to do something about it by holding “space days” at area schools, where children and parents can learn about science and space exploration first-hand from scientists themselves and often, from genuine astronauts who have broken the earth’s envelope and seen the universe open before them.

“My interest in space was just a hobby that turned into something more,” explained Bryan McKay, a member of Groton’s Lions Club. “I wanted to increase awareness of math and science for kids. I wanted them to know that they might be able to go into space some day, or work for the space program, or design rockets.”

To that end, McKay has worked to schedule a space night on the grounds of the Groton-Dunstable Regional High School on April 5.

“Holding a space night is about the Lions Club giving something back to the community and having a fun night for everybody while doing it,” said McKay.

But the star attraction of the evening was a visit by jet pilot, astronaut, scientist, Marine Corps veteran and author Story Musgrave who not only worked for years behind the scenes to develop equipment used in space travel, but also flew on a half dozen shuttle missions, including an extra-vehicular activity aimed at repairing the Hubble Space Telescope.

If the ideal scientist-hero of the 1950s were represented by the characters in the old comic book “Challengers of the Unknown,” then Story Musgrave had to be Prof. Hale, the group’s brainy daredevil who was a combination of physical prowess and intellectual achievement.

“It was my idea to do a space night in Groton,” said McKay. “We were trying to think of a way to promote the Lions Club and we figured that since we knew one of the astronauts who helped to do repairs on the Hubble Space Telescope, giving it corrective lenses so to speak, something that was similar to what the Lions Club was doing for people, we could do a space night. We wanted to make it a community event. We wanted to get the scouts involved and students from the high, middle and elementary schools. We figured we’d make it a big community night where the public could learn about telescopes, the space program, astronomy and science in general.

“I met Story Musgrave through my contacts at NASA and through the Kennedy Space Center,” explained McKay. “He does a one-day show once a month at the Cape.”

McKay said it was through his lifelong interest in space exploration that he met people in the industry and developed the contacts to make organizing space nights possible.

“My hobby is space exploration in general,” said McKay. “It’s a subject that I’ve always followed and I’ve even gone down to Florida to see some launches. Although I’ve arranged for other astronauts to come and visit local schools, it’s not easy. You have to find funding in order to pay for their air fair and hotel accommodations. A couple of years ago, the Groton Trust Fund helped us to bring a local astronaut to Groton and the Trust is involved again with bringing Story Musgrave to town. The Trust, along with other local businesses such as the Middlesex Savings Bank and private residents, has donated money to bring him up.”

Although McKay has organized space nights in other towns such as Ashland, Natick, Sudbury, Acton and Holden, April’s event was the first of its kind to be held in Groton.

“I think that in terms of getting kids’ attention, having a space night is great,” said McKay. “When a real astronaut or engineer comes to speak, the kids just like to learn and find out what’s out there.”

But in a world with so many other distractions vying for people’s attention, it is not an easy task to call attention to the sciences.

“What with the shuttle being down and people saying that we don’t need it anymore, I think interest in space exploration in particular is waning,” lamented McKay. “If we want to go back to the moon or go to Mars, we need people to excel in the sciences in order to get us there.

“Science isn’t only about space though; kids can learn about math and science which translate to other industries as well,” continued McKay. “But there’s a need to learn about space and for exploring the universe.”

But McKay is not completely pessimistic about getting young people interested in a world outside the limited confines of the X Box.

“I think kids like the astronomy part,” mused McKay. “They like looking through a telescope. They like to hear and see about astronaut missions like shuttle launches and how things react in space.

“These days though, I just think there’s too much other stuff out there,” said McKay. “They might find it too hard or not interesting enough maybe.

“I think that shuttle missions or even if there were to be a Mars mission, doesn’t do it for kids these days,” McKay said. “They’re too routine. People only seem to get interested in space when there’s a disaster. But hopefully if we start back to the moon, we’ll see new rockets developed and kids of school age right now may be old enough to go to Mars some day. They’ll be the ones to design the new rockets and to do the traveling.”

It is the optimism and can-do spirit of past decades that McKay hoped to rekindle with the space night.