When NASA astronaut and Waterbury native Rick Mastracchio flies into space on Wednesday, he will take a little piece of his hometown with him.
On his fourth trip to the International Space Station, Mastracchio, 53, will bring a package of Travel Bugs, small dog tags used in geocaching, a treasure hunting game that involves searching for small caches that participants place worldwide. The caches are small weatherproof plastic boxes that contain items, such as Travel Bugs.
Waterbury’s Travel Bugs are part of a geocaching project organized by the Police Activity League to help educate students about science and space.
“He was just a regular kid from Waterbury,” said police Lt. Robert Cizauskas, a friend who has been working closely with Mastracchio on the project. “He went to our public schools and he was also the first one in his family to graduate from college. He’s overcome a lot, coming from a town where urban challenges can sometimes work against you.”
Mastracchio, who graduated from the University of Connecticut in 1982 and attended Chase Elementary and Crosby High School in Waterbury, will serve as the space station’s flight engineer on the mission that launches from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Wednesday. Mastracchio and crew members from Japan and Russia will join six other astronauts and remain aboard the International Space Station for six months.
“An absolute inspiration – quite honestly,” Rep. Selim Noujaim of Waterbury said about Mastracchio’s career with NASA. “For someone who attended Chase Elementary and Crosby High School, and went on to become an astronaut, it’s just very inspiring to the entire city of Waterbury to see somebody who was born and raised here to have accomplished something only a very few people in the world have done.”
Mastracchio earned a bachelor’s in engineering and computer science at UConn, and graduate degrees in electrical engineering and physical science. Mastracchio worked for Hamilton Standard in Connecticut before he left for Houston to work as a NASA contractor. In 1996, Mastracchio was selected as an astronaut candidate and flew his first mission in 2000. He flew aboard two Space Shuttle missions in 2007 and 2010.
A Houston resident and the father of three children, Mastracchio regularly documents his training for his fourth trip to space on his Twitter account, which is @AstroRM. His tweets include updates and pictures of the astronaut in various locations with his Travel Bugs, allowing geocachers worldwide — such as elementary students from Waterbury — to track his journey.
Mastracchio is now in Russia, preparing for next week’s launch from Kazakhstan. His sister, Lori Mastracchio, said the project is important to him.
“He’s very adamant about getting the kids interested in space, because this is the future,” said Lori Mastracchio, a Waterbury resident. “It really makes him happy that the kids are involved. He loves to go to the schools and talk. He is just so excited. He has the biggest smile on his face – he’s so ready for this. And if he’s ready, then I guess we have to be ready too. We are so happy for him.”
Cizauskas, an active geocacher, said he thought the treasure hunting game might be a unique way for children in the community to connect with their hometown hero’s space travel. The Waterbury Police Activity League, a nonprofit organization that provides opportunities for young people to connect with law enforcement, partnered with 11 elementary schools in the Waterbury area to create an interactive geocaching project between students and Mastracchio.
“The idea was that we could activate some of these Travel Bugs so the astronaut could take a package of them along the way and the students could track his training around the world and even his work up in space,” Cizauskas said.
According to the Geocaching website, more than 2 million caches have been placed or hidden throughout the globe, capable of being tracked through GPS coordinates over Geocaching’s website.
The Travel Bug’s location can be tracked on the Geocache blog, where Mastracchio can post pictures and stories about his work on the space station to teach Waterbury students about geography and science. One of Mastracchio’s Travel Bugs, named the “International Space Station Travel Bug II,” comes from Chase Elementary’s fifth grade class.
“We are proud to be part of this program and believe that Rick Mastracchio is a role model and an inspiration to all public school children,” said Nancy Silva, a fifth-grade teacher at Chase. “He truly serves as an example of what can be accomplished through hard work.”
Administrators at the elementary school are pleased with their students’ positive response to the project.
“The program gives the kids an opportunity to track the Travel Bug through space,” Chase Vice Principal Matthew Calabrese said. “It’s very interactive for the students and I think that’s the part that appeals to them most. They can ask [Mastracchio] questions over the blog and he can respond to them in real time.”
“Students are absolutely fascinated with this technology – it’s totally new,” he said. “In my time in education I never thought this type of project would be possible for the elementary level. Technology today can incorporate our elementary kids.”
On Wednesday – which Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has declared Rick Mastracchio Day – Waterbury’s astronaut will ride the Russian-built Soyuz TMA-11M spacecraft into orbit at 11:14 p.m. The launch will be broadcast live in Times Square.
In addition to the Travel Bugs, Mastracchio will bring a UConn baseball cap into space. The mission is also bringing along a replica of the Olympic torch that will be carried on a spacewalk in honor of the2014 Winter Olympic Games in the Russian city of Sochi. The torch will be brought back on Nov. 11 by three astronauts who have been at the space station for the past six months.
“People are calling him a hero, but [Rick] has never considered himself a hero,” Lori Mastracchio said. “He’s incredibly humble – he just really loves science – so he always says he’s just doing his job.”
Story by Rose Lichtenfels, Hartford Courant