NASA astronaut Richard Linnehan gave a public lecture Monday at Santa Barbara Public Library, giving local middle school students and other community members a chance to hear about his unique 58 days in outer space as part of a three-day Synthesis Unit for Anacapa School.

Linnehan, who is also a United States Army veterinary, spoke about four spaceflights, which included a total of over 58 days in orbit, including two trips to the International Space Station and a Hubble Telescope servicing trip. The Synthesis Unit offers 7th through 12th grade students the chance to participate in workshops and listen to a panel of professionals answer questions on the chosen topic — “Space: Where Are We Going?”

According to Levi Maaia, graduate research fellow at UCSB’s Gevirtz Graduate School of Education and Anacapa School’s digital media teacher and faculty advisor who gave the first talk in the Synthesis Unit, Linnehan’s experience allowed him to share information to the students beyond their usual classroom curriculum

“I think that he provides a unique perspective from NASA that we can’t give them anywhere else,” Maaia said. “Everything else that we might say as teachers is merely speculation as to the U.S. space program.”

Linnehan said he enjoys giving talks and presentations regularly to help foster children’s interests in science, especially now that the United States Space Shuttle program has ended.

“The Anacapa School invited me to come out and do it, so it’s NASA-sponsored PR and deals with education and young children’s STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics], which I think is really important,” Linnehan said.

Linnehan’s presentation concluded with footage of the Space Shuttle program’s final flight. Tom Totton, Vice President of the Santa Barbara Astronomical Unit, said he found the video overly dramatic, but the overall presentation that Linnehan gave exceeded his expectations.

“Support for the science, technology, engineering and mathematics program around the United States — all schools [are] trying to emphasize those things to try to keep our country up to date in that field,” Totton said. “I think it’s good for the world in general. It’s cool that there are people out there who can bring that interest in science. I think the last video was a little too much, but I thought it was informative.”

According to Linnehan, though public funding for NASA remains low, he expects to see more jobs open up in private companies for prospective employees who hope to enter the field of space exploration after college. Linnehan said he believes that current students will be the key to future innovative solutions and ideas in the field.

“I think we’re kind of where the Wright Brothers were back in the early days of flight,” Linnehan said. “Now with SpaceX, Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada [and] Lynx, they’re all coming up strong. They’re all coming up with systems that NASA’s going to use, that we’re going to go to the International Space Station with. They’re all going to be big future players in planetary exploration. I think NASA partnerships with people who are contractors of that kind are the future of space travel all over the world, not just within this country.”

Linnehan said students should focus their studies on their specific interests but also keep in mind the benefits of science as a foundational element to any vocation.

“Study what you’re interested in,” Linnehan said. “Pick up what you like and do well at, and maybe look at that as a springboard to something else you might want to do because you need the basics, first off with science and math. I don’t care if you can write English literature like Shakespeare; in this day and age you better know how things work, you better be able to do higher order mathematics and understand basic scientific concepts. Even at an elementary school level, even with K through three, it is important for kids to get that and that is part of what I am talking about.”

 A version of this article appeared on page 5 of January 30th, 2013’s print edition of the Nexus.