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02-03-03: Immaculate Conception's students take loss of shuttle crew personally due to special tie
Standard Correspondent
    By noon Saturday state and U.S. flags were already flying at half-mast at Immaculate Conception School in Celina, where staff and students feel they have a special connection to the astronauts, Principal Kathy Mescher said this morning.
    "I'm sure it hit everybody in the country - but I can't help but think it hit us in a different way, because of our connection with NASA," she said.
    I.C. made radio contact with astronaut Carl Walz while he was aboard the shuttle Atlantis in 1996. Walz then paid a visit to the school in 1998. Last year, when Walz was on the International Space Station, he participated in a satellite connection with the school.
    "We have put a face with NASA," said Mescher, who last week announced to elementary students that Walz would return to Celina on Feb. 18-19. An evening presentation was planned for the public, followed by school assemblies the next day.
    "We were supposed to get confirmation of his visit this week," Mescher said. "But we're pretty certain those plans are going to be affected by what has happened. Everybody at NASA is probably going to be involved somehow in the investigation and follow-up."
    The school's relationship with the man it considers its very own astronaut has sharpened the grief of the staff and students, Mescher said.
    "The fact that we have had this contact with Carl, and having gotten to know him, we feel that we know a little bit about all the astronauts - we know that those seven people on board the Columbia were real people," she said.
    At school this morning, Mescher asked the students to write poems or essays, or draw pictures to commemorate the crew of the Columbia.
    "We're going to put a memorial up in school to give the kids a chance to express what they're feeling," she said. "We can't send all of our messages to NASA - they're being inundated with messages of support. But we plan to send one message to NASA to let them know that we are thinking of them and are in support of what they are doing."
    When Walz last visited the school, one of the students asked him if he was ever afraid when he was on a mission, Mescher said.
    "He answered that he knew there was a risk with every flight, but that he was willing to take the risk to be a part of it, to help push back that frontier," she said. "I couldn't help but remember that when I heard the news on Saturday. In a way, that makes it less tragic. These people were doing something they believed in. They knew there was danger involved, but they were willing to risk it."


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