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Anniston Miles is dressing up like an astronaut for Halloween, but someday she wants to be the real thing.
As the Nicholson second grader strapped in to a museum’s replica shuttle, watched videos of liftoffs and read books about space, she began making a list of questions about exploring places beyond earth.
“What’s it like to be in space?” the girl wondered.
Years before Anniston was born, NASA astronaut Joe Allen was about to find out. The Crawfordsville native flew aboard the first fully-operational space shuttle in 1982, gazing at Earth from the flight deck window. Now 82, Allen teaches the next generation of space explorers what it’s like to work in zero gravity.
Wearing her astronaut costume, Anniston, along with her parents Keri and Joe and third-grade friend Sebastian Kochert, paid a visit to Allen at a local nursing home. Allen signed Anniston’s helmet, told one joke after another, and showed the children pictures from his spaceflights.
“I loved it. It’s the most fun ever,” he said. “And you cannot take your eye off the Earth. It’s so beautiful.”
Two years after blasting off on his first mission, Allen returned to orbit with the crew of Discovery, which included Anna Fisher, the first mother in space.
“When you launch to space, you would weigh 200 lbs.,” Allen said, describing the force of the shuttle charging into orbit. “But you’d be lying on your back, so it isn’t that uncomfortable.”
The crew launched satellites and performed spacewalks, snacking on M&Ms as they traveled 18,000 mph in outer space. When it was time to go to the bathroom, the astronauts used a “zero gravity potty” resembling an airplane toilet.
“But it has one major difference,” Allen added when the kids asked about bathroom breaks. “It has a seatbelt, and so when you float down on to the toilet, you fasten your seatbelt, and you don’t want to forget your seatbelt.”
Allen retired from NASA in 1985.
The shuttle program had ended by the time Anniston, who began reading at age 3, picked up a Dr. Seuss book about the solar system.
“She always looked at the stars and always took interest in space,” Keri said.
On a more recent family vacation to South Carolina, Anniston climbed into a model of Discovery, where kids could “land” the shuttle back on Earth from the pilot’s seat.
“I felt like I was in a real ship,” said Anniston, who has asked for a telescope for Christmas.