Wide-eyed students were fascinated yesterday as two Nasa astronauts described the breathtaking view of Earth from space and other unique experiences. Their latest mission - encouraging would-be astronauts to join their career path into space. For Barry "Butch" Wilmore and Robert Satcher, their first view of Dubai was an unusual one. From 400km in space, they could make out the Palm developments and the scattered islands of The World.
Their second view of Dubai was rather more straightforward - on terra firma, at the Gems World Academy school yesterday, where the American astronauts talked about their careers and their journeys to an assembly of teenagers. At the end, the pupils were inspired; maybe one day they too will see Dubai from the vantage point of the International Space Station (ISS). "If you see the strips of colour in a sunrise, the blue, which is a brilliant glow in the dark, [is] an effervescent blue that I can't describe," Mr Wilmore said. "You see pictures but until I saw with my own eyes, they don't do it justice. This is really a tranquil-looking Earth we are in."
The men, believed to be the first "active" astronauts to visit the Emirates, recently returned from the 31st space shuttle expedition to the ISS. They regaled their audience with tales of take-offs, spacewalks, life in zero gravity - and brought a message of encouragement for would-be astronauts. "I think a lot of kids were like me when I was a kid. They look at the role of an astronaut as a very unique and high profile position," said Mr Wilmore.
Their trip to the school was designed to encourage the students' interest in the science, technology, engineering and maths behind space exploration. "It is something Nasa is doing to broaden beyond its current scope by reaching out more globally and that's the reason for being here," said Mr Wilmore, who has more than 259 space hours under his belt. Mr Satcher, who has doctorates in medicine and chemical engineering, said whatever profession one chooses, a career in Nasa was always possible with some hard work. "We come from really different diverse backgrounds - Butch is a pilot and I'm a medical doctor. There is a large diversity, so we try and take that and tell them [the students] it's really about focusing and doing the best you possibly can either being an astronaut, a doctor or a lawyer," said Mr Satcher.
The message got through. Armaghan Mirzaei, 17, from Iran, wants to study medicine and Mr Satcher's medical background has reinforced her dream of one day looking down on the Earth from a spacecraft. "It was their opinions that mattered to me. They told us they thought they could never think of becoming an astronaut and they thought they couldn't come this far - it was amazing," said Ms Mirzaei. Until yesterday, she had been disheartened by how few people wanted to break through the Earth's atmosphere.
"Now I have seen this is possible and how Dr Satcher, who is a medical doctor, did it. This has made me think I can definitely go and do this and think more about it," she said. But first she said she would focus on her schoolwork and getting the grades she needed to pursue a career in medicine. Mr Satcher said: "They are the future for space-age exploration and unequivocally enthusiastic about what we are doing. There is a lesson there for all of us ... we've been reminded how important it is for us as astronauts to go out and spread the message of studying and education and to make sure the kids understand the importance of eduction for the future."
By the end of tomorrow, students at six of Gems Education's schools will have heard the astronauts' stories. They will be shown video footage and photographs from space expeditions, but as Mr Wilmore observed, nothing compares to the experience of seeing space first-hand. Yesterday's talk went beyond the anecdotal as the astronauts also tried to pass on a message about hope and humanity. "Man should put its differences aside and put our causes together and that is what we do at the International Space Station. Now there is a coalition that has built and assembled the space stations. It was different cultures, languages all from different parts of the world, we had to work together but we did," Mr Wilmore said.
"All the systems talk to each other [on the ISS] and they work. Why can't we do that down here?" A group of 60 students from Dubai Modern High School, which is managed by Gems, recently got a taste of what it is like to be a spaceman. Abhshek Dhar, 15, from India, was one of the students who visited a Nasa space camp in Huntsville, Alabama. "They give you a brief experience of what astronauts go through," he said yesterday. "I think space is a mystery and I think a lot of people want to solve it and so do I." The youngsters learnt the practical aspects of life as an astronaut and even got to build rockets, scuba dive to learn about weightlessness and conduct simulated spacewalks suspended on ropes and springs.
Mr Wilmore and Mr Satcher are the 508th and 510th people to enter space (the gap is because of the seating arrangement on their shuttle), and like so many of the 507 before them, they describe space exploration as a humbling experience.
"When you launch into space and experience some of the events; just the launch itself, the feeling of weightlessness and get on to the spaceship and see the magnificence of the machine, and its beauty and see its capabilities and you realise there are thousands of people around the globe that have played a major part in this and then you realise you are one of the few who got to be there, it is a very humbling experience. You sort of think, why me?" Mr Wilmore said.