When astronaut Nicole Stott flew the final mission of space shuttle Discovery in February, more than 46,000 people followed her via a social networking site. Thursday, more than 400 Tarpon Springs High School students got to meet her face to face, and they were clearly in awe.
Stott was at the school early to eat breakfast (a mushroom and cheese omelet) with the student officers of the science and math honor societies, but as students seated at other tables finished their breakfasts, the crowd around Stott's table grew.
The school auditorium started filling with students 30 minutes before her presentation and question-and-answer session began. They listened. Clapped after she spoke. Laughed with her when the computer wouldn't run a video and she responded, "I do have a technical background."
And at the end, they gave her an enthusiastic standing ovation.
"We're lucky to have her come to our school," said student Ashley McKenzie of Palm Harbor. "It's really neat. Not everybody gets to meet an astronaut."
Stott is a graduate of Clearwater High School. Pinellas County residents have followed her career with NASA, which began when she landed a position as operations engineer in the Orbiter Processing Facility of Kennedy Space Center in 1988.
"Pinellas County is definitely my home," said Stott, who grew up in Clearwater. "My family lives all up here in Tarpon Springs. Tarpon Springs and the Palm Harbor area are dear to me."
She has gone where few men and fewer women have gone before, ridden the ultimate ride into space, stayed on the International Space Station, and lived to tweet about it, but Stott is humble.
"It meant a whole lot to know you were down here following the mission, listening to what was going on and hopefully feeling some of the excitement that we do when we're up there," she said.
Standing in her NASA jumpsuit in front of the packed auditorium, she looked confident but approachable, showing students by her presence that it is possible to dream about and do what you love.
Stott exuded enthusiasm for space exploration. She offered hope to students regarding the future of space exploration.
"I want to thank everyone in Florida for the personal and mission support, and want people to keep rooting for us," Stott said. "As a country we need to continue to do great things."
When student Angela Kapetanpoulos asked, "What type of obstacles did you have to overcome to make it into the space program?" Stott's frank answer may have surprised a few people.
"I think that my own difficulty in believing that I could become an astronaut was the biggest obstacle," said Stott, who went on to talk about mentors who saw in her attributes she did not see in herself.
Student William Ruth of Palm Harbor asked, "Astronauts are only allowed a certain amount of space and weight for personal items. So, when being put into orbit, what kind of or how many personal items do you bring along?"
One of the items she took in her small pouch of personal items was a wristband she and her son share that reads, "Mommy loves Roman." She also took personal family photographs and letters from Clearwater High students.
Student Ashley McKenzie wanted to know what inspired Stott to want to work for NASA.
"It was a natural thing for me because I think it was an evolution of the interest I had in flying," said Stott, whose father, Fred Passonno, introduced her to flying.
Student Ryan Faries of Tarpon Springs approached Stott from a scientific angle and asked, "How did the Robonaut 2 perform during the tests on the International Space Station and how will it or other similar robots change how NASA approaches space travel?"
"We actually didn't get to take it out of the box," Stott admitted. "We met the robot before we left on the mission." Stott went on to say that she thinks the best use of that type of robot will be to perform utility functions that are dangerous for people.
Student Mark Noble asked what Stott felt were the major downfalls of science education in the United States.
When the laughing ended, Stott said, "When I come to schools like this, I wonder if there is one. I'm talking to students who have a real interest in science."
When the space shuttle Endeavour is launched into space for the last time today, President Barack Obama, the first lady and tens of thousands of people will be at Cape Canaveral to watch. But not Stott. She had made previous arrangements to speak to Clearwater High students today, and she intends to keep the appointment.
After her presentation, Stott took time to pose for photos with students. Tully Causey of Tarpon Springs summed up the feelings of other students.
"This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience," said Tully. "You dream about being an astronaut. We got to meet one today."
St. Petersburg Times photojournalist Jim Damaske contributed to this report.