Brenna Swift, The Union Democrat

Students from Tenaya Elementary, Tioga High School and Don Pedro High School were visited Friday by someone who may very well have seen Tuolumne County from space.

The Pine Mountain Lake Aviation Association brought in Col. Robert "Shane" Kimbrough, who flew to the International Space Station on the space shuttle Endeavor, to tell students about life as an astronaut.

"Everyone wanted to be an astronaut," Kimbrough said. "I was lucky enough to fulfill that dream."

He described not only the picturesque parts of the job - watching Earth from the International Space Station - but also about its not-so-glamorous realities, like going for weeks without a shower.

The latter description brought out an exclamation of "EEEEW!" from sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders.

"We've had about 15 minutes of questions," said Big Oak Flat-Groveland Unified School District Superintendent Dave Urquhart during Kimbrough's presentation to younger students. "You know, like 'Have you seen any aliens?' "

One student, eighth-grader Rory Wilk, was awarded an Endeavor patch for asking the question on everyone else's minds: How does one go to the bathroom in space?

The short answer, Kimbrough said, is carefully.

He was a mission specialist on the STS-126 Endeavor mission in 2008, one of seven crew members. He logged two spacewalks to service the International Space Station.

The STS-126 mission lasted almost 16 days and expanded the station's living quarters with a new bathroom, kitchenette, bedroom and equipment. Kimbrough called it a "home improvement mission."

The International Space Station takes only 90 minutes to circle Earth once, meaning the crew gets to see 16 sunrises and sunsets every day, Kimbrough said.

He pointed out that docking the Endeavor at the International Space Station is a feat requiring "a lot of math, science and really smart people."

Other facts about the space station: Weightlessness means astronauts will lose bone density unless they exercise for at least two hours every day, they sleep upright with their heads strapped to pillows, and the sudden return to gravity on Earth makes them extremely dizzy.

Like many students, Tenaya Elementary eighth-grader Randie Scott said she dreamed of being an astronaut when younger, but has realized it isn't for her.

Kimbrough "showed us how tough it was going to be," Scott said.

Second-grader Levi Shumway, on the other hand, decided immediately after hearing Kimbrough that his life goal would be flying to Pluto.

Kimbrough said his own dream of being an astronaut dates from his childhood, too. He earned a degree in aerospace engineering from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, was commissioned as second lieutenant in the army, and became an aviator.

He served in Operation Desert Storm with Eric Henderson, the Pine Mountain Lake Aviation Association's president. The two flew back to the United States together on the same plane, Henderson recalled.

Kimbrough later applied and was chosen from among thousands of other applicants to be a NASA astronaut candidate, or "ASCAN," in 2004.

With that came science briefings, instruction in shuttle and International Space Station systems, flight and survival training, and finally the Endeavor mission.

Henderson got the idea to bring in his old friend for a speech at the Pine Mountain Lake Aviation Association and decided Groveland students could also benefit from his experience.

"They have to meet people who are achievers," particularly in math and science, Henderson said.

Kimbrough had never before been to Tuolumne County, but speaks to about 50 schools a year and tries to reinforce the value of hard work.

"We have to study and we have to take tests," he said of his training as an astronaut. "We have instructors to teach us and grade us. It kind of never ends."

On Friday, he presented Big Oak Flat-Groveland Unified School District with an American flag that had flown on the Endeavor, now retired.

The flag saw 6.6 million miles of travel and flew around the earth 251 times before finding a home in the Mother Lode.