What's a trip to a middle school classroom when you've been to the moon?
Frank Borman, commander of Apollo 8, the first manned mission to orbit the moon, visited Will James Middle School on Tuesday, meeting with the five students who will compete later this month in the National Science Bowl.
He answered questions, listened as the students talked specifics about the small, electric race car they designed and built and asked them what they had planned for their future.
"It was amazing," said Madison Haagenson, an eighth-grader. "I'm just speechless."
"It's meeting someone who's a real American hero," said Sam Gunnis. "It's an amazing feeling."
Haagenson and Gunnis, along with seventh-graders Julianne Terry, Tyler Linfesty and Alex Wood, make up the Will James science bowl team. They beat out every other middle school team in the state in competition last month and will now travel to Washington, D.C., for the national competition.
Pat Kenney, an eighth-grade science teacher at Will James, has coached science bowl teams for nearly a decade. Each group bones up for a quiz show-type competition and builds a shoebox-sized electric car to race.
At nationals, team members will again compete in the quiz competition and they'll race their car. Designed and built from scratch by the five students, the race car is the descendant of a prototype they built earlier in the school year. In all, they've built seven versions of the car.
"We've put in a lot of time," Julianne said. "We've corrected it so many times."
The team is excited to visit D.C. and to compete on a national stage. They all realize they'll go head to head with the brightest students in the country and they like that they're included in that group.
"Our goal is the top 16," Tyler Linfesty said.
Borman, who lives on a ranch with his wife east of Billings, is a local pilot and a friend of Kenney's, who also flies planes. When possible, Kenney tries to arrange meet-ups with Borman, who, aside from flying to the moon, earned a master's degree in aeronautical engineering and has a deep respect for math and science.
And chatting up the students, Borman knew just what questions to ask about the design of the car and how it works. Listening to their answers and explanations, he admired the work they had done.
"I'm telling you the gospel truth, I'm very impressed," he told them.
Borman also told them to appreciate their teacher, Mr. Kenney.
"He's the best one I've ever seen," Borman said.
Alex Wood was probably the team member most excited to meet Borman. He's been a huge fan and brought with him on Tuesday copies of Borman's official NASA photograph for him to sign.
Nervous and a little in awe, Alex had a hard time speaking loud enough for Borman to hear.
After asking him to speak up a couple times, Borman finally told Wood to go somewhere and practice being loud.
"You need to go out in the woods and really shout," he said with a big astronaut grin.
As he left the classroom, Borman complimented the students again, telling them that they gave him hope for the future.
"The future of this country depends on people like you," he told them.
It was a powerful moment for Kenney, who said there was a special charge in the air as Borman and the students connected.
"It gave me goosebumps," he said.
And he praised Borman, who's now 86, for making the trip into town to meet with his students.
"He doesn't need to do this," Kenney said. "Talk about going out of your way."