Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Student Hosts Cosmonaut

MANASSAS, Virginia — As science star Ricky Yezzi took the stage in his high school auditorium Friday morning, 400 of his schoolmates cheered and whistled as if he had just come home victorious from a big game. The shaggy-haired 18-year-old quelled the noise long enough to introduce his two new acquaintances: one of Russia's premier cosmonauts and a top Russian space scientist.

For the next 90 minutes, Yury Usachev and Alexander Martynov talked about the U.S.-Russian partnership on the international space station, a possible manned mission to Mars and the physics of doing somersaults in space. The rare visit was made possible by Yezzi.

Based on his research paper about manned Mars missions, the senior was one of six Virginia students chosen by the state U.S. Department of Education to participate in the Russian International Space Olympics in Moscow last October. But the group did not get to go.

Weeks before the competition, department officials canceled the free two-week trip because they were concerned about terrorism, especially after the September attack on the Beslan school.

To compensate for the disappointment, they arranged for Usachev and Martynov, already scheduled for speaking engagements in the United States, to stop at some of the winning students' schools. "I really wanted to go to Russia. I thought it would be exciting to see how they would lead their lives and to stay in old cosmonaut barracks," Yezzi said, adding that he was rebuffed when he asked permission to go if he paid his own way. "But [the Russians' visit] makes up for it. It made me feel proud of myself. Now all the work I did doesn't seem like much of a waste."

Yezzi's paper explored scenarios for going to Mars: traveling there directly, stopping first at the Moon and establishing a base to perform experiments and test equipment for problems.

Martynov, a top scientist at Russia's mission control from 1968 to 1992, told the students that a Mars expedition might involve launching several rockets carrying equipment needed to build a new space station that might then travel into Mars's orbit and send out a separate spacecraft to land on Mars. He also entertained them with trivia questions, including "What's the difference between a cosmonaut and an astronaut?"

After a few moments of silence, he said, "Okay, you are right. There is no difference. But from my point of view, it is more correct to say cosmonaut. An astronaut means someone who flies between stars," he said, whereas a cosmonaut is someone who goes into space.

Usachev described the kinds of toilets aboard spacecraft and stressed the importance of collegiality. "You have to be very comfortable with the crewmembers," he said. "You can't just shut the door and go outside."

At the end of the session, Larry Nemerow, coordinator of the school's biotechnology center, said the Russians' visit was a graphic reminder of how much has changed politically since he was a high school student during the Cold War. "Growing up, … the big conflict was the U.S.S.R. versus the U.S. We were told that this was our main enemy," he said. Then he turned to Yezzi and asked: "Do you have any recollection of the Berlin Wall coming down? You were what, 3 or 4?"