DOWNEY — Fifth-grader Scott Ward wants to be an astronaut. So do fourth-graders Victor Alvarez and Carlton Monroe.
Five space shuttle astronauts visited Ward Elementary School on Wednesday and left behind a comet's tail of excitement and motivation.
"You have to work hard to be something that you really want," Scott said. "Someday you'll make that dream come true."
The hourlong visit was arranged by Rockwell International Corp., which builds the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's space shuttle orbiters. The firm's Space Transportation Systems Division, with headquarters in Downey, "adopted" Ward Elementary School in October.
More than 100 fourth- and fifth-grade students clapped loudly as three astronauts entered the school auditorium and made their way to the stage. Two other astronauts visited different classrooms to tell their stories of space and personal achievement.
The astronauts took the space shuttle Columbia on an 11-day mission in January. They deployed a communications satellite and retrieved NASA's Long-Duration Exposure Facility, which contained various experiments.
Mission Cmdr. Daniel C. Brandenstein told of the yearlong training for the mission, the workbooks and the films.
"It's kind of like you're starting at first grade and going through high school," Brandenstein said.
He described the feeling of accelerating into space: "It's like having two of your buddies lying on top of you."
Mission specialist G. David Low described his first view of space: "The black of space is blacker than anything you can imagine."
And he talked about the thin atmosphere that envelops the Earth: "That makes you realize how fragile this place really is and how collectively we have to take care of it."
Mission specialist Bonnie J. Dunbar told of the effects of weightlessness on the human body and the need to follow an exercise program in space.
"In zero (gravity), the heart doesn't work as hard," she said. "When a muscle doesn't work as hard, it gets smaller."
Then the children asked their questions.
"What is the most unusual thing you've seen in space?"
Dunbar described a nighttime thunderstorm over Africa. "It's a light show you can't believe," she said.
"Do the stars look different in space?" another student wanted to know.
"The stars don't twinkle, and because there is no Earth's atmosphere and smog, you can see all of them," Dunbar said. "You get a feeling about what infinity is like."
The visit was probably the biggest event ever to hit the 550-student school. Previously, Rockwell had arranged student tours of its Downey facility, among other activities.
Ward Elementary also is one of many schools in the Los Angeles area that are growing tomato seeds exposed to outer space in the Long-Duration Exposure Facility.
A Rockwell spokeswoman said the company has an investment in its partnership with Ward Elementary.
"One of our big concerns, being a high-tech industry, is the declining interest in science in public education," spokeswoman Janet Dean said. "We hope we can motivate kids to be scientists, engineers and astronauts."