Wilcutt visits alma mater for opening of flight exhibit

Adriane Hardin

Elementary school children darted back and forth on the front lawn of the Kentucky Building Saturday, watching paper airplanes rise and fall through the air.

Inside, spectators both young and old stood in line to get an autograph from Col. Terry Wilcutt, a NASA astronaut.

Others wandered through a maze of black and white photographs displayed in the newest exhibit at the Kentucky Museum, “The Wright Approach: Wilbur and Orville and Their Flying Machine.”

The exhibit opened Saturday at the Kentucky Museum and will remain open until August 2004. Wilcutt, a Western alumnus, made a presentation called “Living Your Dreams.”

Wilcutt takes a red towel to space with him each time he goes up, and brings it back to President Gary Ransdell.

He credits his education as the key to his success as an astronaut.

“I wouldn’t have gotten into test-pilot school without that degree,” he said.

Wilcutt told the crowd that all astronauts have worked hard to achieve their dreams by making themselves qualified through education.

He encouraged the children in attendance to never give up on their dreams.

“Put in your application,” Wilcutt said. “If they say no, just make yourself more qualified.”

Wilcutt has spent a great deal of time making himself qualified since he was born in Russellville in 1949.

Wilcutt later moved to Louisville, where he said he lived in “the projects.” He graduated from Southern High School in Louisville in 1967, then graduated from Western in 1974 with a bachelor’s degree in math. He taught high school math until 1976, when he joined the United States Marine Corps.

Wilcutt, a veteran of four space shuttle missions, has logged over 1,007 hours in space. He is slated to command STS-116, which is scheduled for launch in 2004.

Wilcutt is hopeful about the launch despite the Columbia disaster in February.

“That’s one of the things NASA does well is fix technical problems,” he said.

Wilcutt said those lost on Columbia were good friends of his.

“There’s a lot of grieving,” Wilcutt said.

After his remarks, Wilcutt fielded questions from the audience.

One man wanted to know the status of space debris. A child wanted to know how long it takes to get to Jupiter. Another child wanted to know what it felt like to float around in space.

“Imagine a mattress so soft you can’t feel it,” Wilcutt said.

He also presented the Kentucky Museum with one of his flight suits.

After Wilcutt spoke, young Riley Phelps stood shyly beside the autograph table grasping his father’s hand. As Wilcutt leaned over to pose for a photograph with Phelps, he asked, “Did I answer all your questions?”

Phelps nodded. He was wearing a Kennedy Space Center T-shirt emblazoned with the words “One giant leap for mankind.”

“I like space,” Phelps said simply. However, unlike Wilcutt, Phelps has no aspirations to go there. He plans to be a soccer player.

Steve Parker, executive director of the Aviation Museum of Kentucky, announced after the presentation that Wilcutt has been placed on the ballot for the museum’s Hall of Fame.

The aviation museum is located at the Blue Grass Airport in Lexington.

Reach Adriane Hardin at [email protected]