As science star Ricky Yezzi took the stage in the Osbourne Park High School auditorium yesterday morning, 400 of his schoolmates cheered and whistled as if he had just come home victorious from a big game. The shaggy-haired 18-year-old quelled the noise long enough to introduce his two new acquaintances: one of Russia's premier cosmonauts and a top Russian space scientist.
For the next 90 minutes, Yury Usachev and Alexander Martynov talked about the U.S.-Russian partnership on the international space station, a possible manned mission to Mars and the physics of doing somersaults in space. The rare in-school field trip was made possible by Yezzi.
At Osbourne Park High School in Manassas, senior Ricky Yezzi talks with Russian cosmonaut Yury Usachev.
(Len Spoden For The Washington Post)
Based on his research paper about manned Mars missions, the Manassas senior was one of six Virginia students chosen by the state Department of Education to participate in the Russian International Space Olympics in Moscow last October. But the group -- including another student from Prince William County, three from Fairfax County and one from Giles County in southwest Virginia -- did not get to go.
Weeks before the competition, department officials canceled the free two-week trip because they were concerned about terrorism, especially after the September siege on a Russian school near the Chechen border in which at least 330 people were killed, most of them children.
To compensate for the disappointment, they arranged for Usachev and Martynov, already scheduled for speaking engagements in the United States, to stop at some of the winning students' schools. On Wednesday, the Russians went to Stonewall Jackson High School, also in Manassas.
"I really wanted to go to Russia. I thought it would be exciting to see how they would lead their lives and to stay in old cosmonaut barracks," Yezzi said, adding that he was rebuffed when he asked permission to go if he paid his own way. "But [the Russians' visit] makes up for it. It made me feel proud of myself. Now all the work I did doesn't seem like much of a waste."
Yezzi's paper explored scenarios for going to Mars: traveling there directly, stopping first at the Moon and establishing a base to perform experiments and test equipment for problems.
Martynov, a top scientist at the Russian mission control center from 1968 to 1992, told the students that a Mars expedition might involve launching several rockets carrying equipment needed to build a new space station that might then travel into Mars's orbit and send out a separate spacecraft to land on Mars. He also entertained them with trivia questions, including "What's the difference between a cosmonaut and an astronaut?"
After a few moments of silence, he said, "Okay, you are right. There is no difference. But from my point of view, it is more correct to say cosmonaut. An astronaut means someone who flies between stars," he said, whereas a cosmonaut is someone who goes into space.
Some students leaned forward to hear -- and others kept up a rapid-fire exchange of text messages on their cell phones -- as Martynov explained that humans, not robots, must go to Mars "because traces of life can be found underground, 50 to 60 meters, and robots can't drill that far without the help of men."
Next up was the man in the blue flight suit, cosmonaut Usachev, who has spent more than 670 days in space, 160 of them aboard the space station in 2001 with two Americans. He got down to basics, describing the kinds of toilets aboard spacecraft, showing a video of himself and other crew members exercising in zero gravity and stressing the importance of collegiality.
"You have to be very comfortable with the crew members," he said. "You can't just shut the door and go outside."
At the end of the session, Larry Nemerow, coordinator of the school's biotechnology center, said the Russians' visit was a graphic reminder of how much has changed politically since he was a high school student during the Cold War.
"Growing up . . . the big conflict was the U.S.S.R. versus the U.S. We were told that this was our main enemy," he said. Then he turned to Yezzi and asked: "Do you have any recollection of the Berlin Wall coming down? You were what, 3 or 4?"