The 'Wright' stuff
Edward Byrom Elementary School teacher Julie Wright will long remember the first astronaut she met.
It was 1984 and Wright's mother took her to Linn Benton Community College to hear a lecture by astronaut Judith Resnik, who would later fly aboard the ill-fated Challenger.
Then a fourth-grader living in Albany, Wright had a simple question: "Did you get sick in space?"
What Wright meant by her question was could she still be an astronaut even if she experienced air sickness when flying, just like the young Wright did?
"I wanted to be an astronaut ever since I was a kid," said Wright, a Tualatin resident. "I wanted to know if it was still possible for me to get in space."
Through no fault of her own, Resnik thought she was asking about general illnesses, and replied simply that "astronauts are people and can get colds too."
Crestfallen, Wright, now 43, more specifically wanted to clarify her question but her mom told her to let it go.
Fast forward to Jan. 28, 1986, when the Challenger broke apart 73 seconds after it launched, killing all seven crew members including Resnik.
Watching the event live on television, Wright recalls being devastated.
"What I remember from it was complete silence and confusion," recalled Wright. "And I just remember my teacher crying and me upset. I could hardly talk about it."
Still, that meeting with Resnik, along with an early dream to become the first female jet fighter pilot or Blue Angels pilot, has led Wright to a fascination with space and astronauts, topics that she passionately instills in her third-graders at Byrom as well as during lectures on space to fifth-graders.
Space Camp, The Next Generation
Since meeting Resnik, Wright eventually ended up as an instructor at one of the U.S. Space Camps, working at the one in California in the summers of 1997 and 1998.
"I loved it," she said. "Most (Space Camp instructors) would say it's the most favorite job they ever had."
(Since then, the U.S. Space Camp in California, along with one in Florida have close, leaving only the Huntsville, Alabama, facility the only one left in the United States.)
"There's been three astronauts that went to Space Camp as a kid," she pointed out.
Now, two decades later, Wright, along with retired Roseberg teacher Dan Tilson, will accompany 14 Oregon students to U.S. Space Camp this summer as part of Oregon Space Camp Adventures.
"We're going to be there for the 50th anniversary of the moon landing," she said, noting that the group assembled will also try to set a world's record on July 16 when they attempt to launch a total of 5,000 model (Estes-type) rockets.
Students from Byrom Elementary School who will be attending the camp include Wright's fifth-grade son Parker Wright; along with Drew Bieberdarf, also a fifth-grader, and Jackson Harris, a fourth-grader.
All three said they are excited about attending the camp.
Harris said he's been asking family members to help out with funding while also saving his allowance and collecting aluminum cans to help to fund the trip. He estimates he has about $1,900 saved.
Parker Wright said he's not sure what to expect at the camp but compared it to the fictional school of magic from the Harry Potter series: "From what I understand, I imagine a space version of Hogwarts; Hogwarts in space."
Bieberdarf said he's not sure what he wants to do most once he gets to space camp, only that he can't wait. "What I'm looking forward to is going to all of it."
Over the years, Wright's enthusiasm for all things space have led her to meet more than 30 astronauts, whose careers date back to as far as the Gemini program.
A highlight came while she was teaching at a school in California in 1998 when she was offered the opportunity to watch her lifelong astronaut hero, John Glenn, travel into space for the first time since he became the first American to orbit the Earth on Feb. 20, 1962.
"John Glenn was my ultimate astronaut," she said. "I absolutely wanted to meet him."
(That time would come 16 years later; see sidebar.)
In the end, Wright and her Space Camp roommate headed to Florida, ending up with VIP seating on the roof of the Astronaut Hall of Fame where they watched the launch.
"It was a beautiful, sunny, nice day," she said, adding that those in the bleachers behind her were staffers from the then-77-year-old senator's office.
"When that thing launched it was so loud and bright and I didn't expect it to be so emotional," she recalled, noting it was the emotions of the Glenn staff that made it all the more memorable for her. "It was one of the best moments of my life."
That night she attended a VIP party that included all the living Mercury astronauts at the time – Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra and Gordon Cooper.
Last summer, Wright traveled with her son Parker and her mother to Spacefest in Tucson, where she met 16 astronauts as well as people who had worked in Mission Control.
She said it's important to pay tribute to the older astronauts.
"These old heroes of America are passing away and we're losing our major heroes," she lamented.
It was there that she asked numerous astronauts if they would be willing to share a little inspirational quote or two to her students back home and found "they were more than willing."
One of the astronauts who gave out a shout-out was Charlie Duke, the youngest astronaut to walk on the moon, who she recording looking at the camera and saying, "I hope I can urge you to aim high at all you do. So study hard, take care of yourself and, who knows what the future holds for you?"
(Visit YouTube and search for: SpaceFestAstronautInterviews)
Wright's exuberance for space and space missions is immediately displayed in the numerous pieces of space memorabilia found in her classroom and in her teaching style.
Take a recent classroom lecture with Byrom Elementary School fifth-graders where Wright explained the dilemma of the first American to fly in space, Alan Shepard, who told Mission Control he had too much coffee, leading him to ask if he could relieve himself.
Their thoughts, she explained, were: "What if we electrocute our first astronaut with his own urine?"
Ultimately Mission Control gave him permission.
"What do you think they invented after this?" Wright asked her students, before answering, "The disposable diaper."
Shepard would go on to golf on the moon, Wright told students before playing them John F. Kennedy's famous speech of the need to travel to the moon and do other things "not because they are easy, but because they are hard."
Among those astronauts Wright has met over the years are:
• Sally Ride, who she would meet at Space Camp and again during a lecture at OSU. She said the first American woman to fly in space agreed to sign a bunch of Wright's stuff if she would give her the Sharpie marker she was carrying so Ride could sign more autographs for other fans waiting in line.
"She definitely was a person I looked up to," said Wright.
• Apollo 13 Commander Jim Lowell, whose scrapped moon mission was made famous by the movie of the same name featuring Tom Hanks. Wright would meet him just briefly during that VIP party at the Glenn launch. Later, Wright and her son Parker would meet lunar module pilot Fred Haise, an experience she called "amazing."
• Bill Anders of Apollo 8, who in 1968 photographed the iconic and much used "Earthrise" shot that shows the Earth and some of the Moon's surface, a photo often used to show the vastness of space. She would meet him at a memorial for Dick Gordon in Seattle at the Museum of Flight last January. Gordon is best known as the command module pilot for Apollo 12, part of that elite group of only 24 people who have ever flown to the moon. Wright had met him at a previous U.S. Space Camp.
Determined to meet astronaut John Glenn after he gave the commencement address at her brother's 2004 graduation from Oregon State University, a mesmerized Julie Wright patiently listened to the senator (and first American to orbit the Earth) trying to determine where he would go after leaving the stage.
A short time later she would recognized an Oregon State Trooper she knew, part of Glenn's security detail. After quickly explaining how big of a fan she was, the trooper radioed his captain (who was escorting Glenn around) and soon Glenn came walking right up to her after the commencement.
"I was so nervous. It was like meeting a rock star and they brought him right to me," said Wright, recalling she might have looked a little off because she was carrying a bag full of Glenn memorabilia that she wanted him to sign. "I put out my hand and said, 'Hi I'm Julie,' and I forgot my last name."
He then looked at her bag of stuff and said, "Why don't you pick three things?"
The next day's Albany Democrat-Herald featured Wright's photo with Glenn on its front page under the headline: "Longtime fan finally meets John Glenn."
Having met Glenn, Wright said she's checked with former Space Camp colleagues over the years and believes she's in an elite group.
"I've never met anyone who has met four Mercury astronauts," she said, pointing out that with Glenn's death in 2016 there are no living Mercury astronauts.
Meanwhile, Wright strongly supports STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) programs and wants to especially encourage girls to engage in science, often pushing her own students to sign up for Lego robotics programs or suggesting a book about a woman scientist for them to read.
For the future, Wright believes it will be private companies that take over the building of successful rockets that transport people to space and beyond, like landing a person on Mars.
And does she think that will ever happen?
"I do," she said. "I thought it would have happened already."