St. Paul astronaut visits Farnsworth

During his visit to the Farnsworth Aerospace campuses, retired NASA astronaut Duane “Digger” Carey had lunch with students. Above, students, like Sadie Wall, eighth grade, were able to ask Carey questions about his career and his experience in space.

From left to right, first-graders Khoua and Ben asked retired astronaut Duane “Digger” Carey how astronaunts eat in space while enjoying an “Earthling” lunch.

Carey visited both the lower and upper campuses of St. Paul Public School’s magnet Farnsworth Aerospace. Carey encouraged students to take the hard classes now so they would have the “keys” to unlock doors in the future.

Carey is a St. Paul native who spent part of his childhood growing up On the East Side in the Roosevelt housing projects with his single mother. He later moved to and graduated from Highland Park High School.

Duane “Digger” Carey encourages kids to aim for the sky

It’s not every day you get to talk with an astronaut, let alone have lunch with one. 

The students at Farnsworth Aerospace Pre-K-8 were able to do that and more when retired NASA astronaut Duane “Digger” Carey visited the school on Dec. 5.

Carey, 59, is a St. Paul native and spent part of his childhood living in the Roosevelt housing projects on the East Side. 

“I’m a St. Paul kid; you’re a St. Paul kid,” said Carey during an assembly at Farnsworth Upper Campus 5-8. 

His visit also included an assembly at Farnsworth Lower Camps pre-K- 4 and lunch with selected students at First Covenant Church.


A St. Paul kid

Carey said he and his wife decided to take up public speaking after he retired from NASA and the U.S. Air Force in 2004. He wanted to show kids that it doesn’t matter where you come from or what your background is, as long as you work hard, you can “call the shots.”

Carey said he hated school growing up but that his parents told him that graduating from high school was “non-negotiable.”

After graduating from Highland Park High School, Carey jumped on his motorcycle and traveled across the U.S for a few years. 

He then decided to join the armed forces and attended the University of Minnesota through the Air Force ROTC program. He graduated in 1981 with a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering and mechanics. In 1982 he received his master’s degree in aerospace engineering so he could later become a test pilot. 

 “They couldn’t tell me no because I had those pieces of paper,” said Carey, telling students that even though he disliked school, he got his degrees because they were “keys” for unlocking doors in the future.

Carey went on to fly over 30 combat missions during Operation Desert Storm and in 1992 attended Air Force Test Pilot School to be a test pilot for F-16s. 

In 1996 Carey was invited by NASA to join the Astronaut Corps as a Space Shuttle pilot. In 2001 he was assigned to pilot the Columbia space shuttle on a mission to the Hubble Space Telescope to perform maintenance on the scope. 

During that mission, the crew spent almost 11 days in space replacing solar panels and upgrading cameras on the Hubble Telescope. 

 “If nothing else, growing up in a cold climate taught you a respect for the environment in that you have to do things  right or you could really get hurt, and it’s the same mentality that you have to have in outer space,” Carey said. 


Still a kid at heart

Carey said he enjoys visiting schools and talking with students because “I think it has a good deal to do with the fact that I am still quite childlike in a lot of ways.” 

During lunch with students, Carey went from table to table, talking with students one-on-one. 

First-grader Ben asked Carey how astronauts eat in space, and Carey told him, “carefully.” Carey then chuckled as he explained that astronauts have to be careful of crumbs otherwise they will end up in “your eyes or up your nose or in your ears.” 

Ben and another first-grade classmate named Khoua said they came up with questions ahead of time to ask Carey and said they both were interested in becoming astronauts some day.

Another student asked him what it felt like in space and Carey said it gives you the same weird feeling in your stomach that you experience just after you go down the big hill on a rollercoaster. 

He added that often astronauts get sick during their first 24 hours in space because the stomach has that odd feeling the whole time astronauts are in space. 

Sadie Wall, an eighth-grader, said she had seen Carey speak at Farnsworth in the past. During this visit, Wall said he talked about the high demand for women engineers. 

 “I was surprised at the demand,” said Wall, who said she is determined to be an astronaut, perhaps even one of the first Mars explorers some day. She said she was looking forward to hearing about his career path so she can start making plans for her future.

The students who had lunch with Carey explained that they were chosen based on a one-sentence answer explaining why they would like to have lunch with him. 

Zitlaly Rodriguez, a seventh-grader, said she was glad Carey came and shared his story with the students. She said she wants to join the armed forces to help disarm bombs in the future. 

Dallas Balentine, a seventh-grader, said that is was “epic” to have a visit from an astronaut who grew up in St. Paul and in the same neighborhoods he lives in. Mason Sanders, a fifth-grader, added that it was “awesome.”

 “He kind of proves that even if you come from St. Paul, it’s (being an astronaut) like a real thing and people do it and it happens,” Wall said.


Anyone can be an astronaut

Today Carey and his wife Cheryl, also a St. Paul native, live in Colorado Springs. Cheryl organizes the paid speaking events and her husband shows up in his pilot jumpsuit. Both strongly believe in connecting with  students and sharing his story to show them that anyone can be an astronaut with hard work.

 “One thing we always agree on is there’s a good chance that even if there’s 400 kids in the audience, there’s a good chance you might have turned one of them around. And that’s all I ask for,” said Carey.

 “We both came from humble backgrounds,” said Carey, adding that he and his wife believe in the opportunity America can bring no matter what neighborhood people come from, as long as they work hard.

In addition, the Careys also encourage students not only to consider four-year degrees but to consider technical schools as well. He said that not only does NASA need engineers, it also hires people who know how to weld and work with various materials. 

 “You might get a crazy idea that you want to do something you never thought about before ... and if you take those hard classes in middle school and high school ... then you’ll have the opportunity to do really cool stuff,” Carey said.


Marjorie Otto can be reached at 651-748-7816 or at Follow her on Twitter at @EastSideM_Otto.


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