Aggies recently have focused their attention skyward as astronaut Mike Fossum - currently aboard the space shuttle Discovery - became the first person with an undergraduate degree from Texas A&M to head into space.

Those devoted to the maroon and white have been posting messages on Internet boards, watching the NASA channel and tuning into news reports with the sole mission of learning more about the 48-year-old, who served in the Corps of Cadets before graduating in 1980 with a mechanical engineering degree.

Gov. Rick Perry on Thursday spoke directly with Fossum while he was in orbit to congratulate him on his accomplishments and give him a "Gig 'Em." A day earlier, Aggie yell leaders were allowed into Houston's Mission Control to talk to the astronaut.

The only other Aggie who has been in space is William Pailes, an Air Force Academy graduate who received a master's degree in computer science from Texas A&M in 1981. He was the payload specialist on the space shuttle Atlantis in 1985.

Fossum, who is a mission specialist on the STS-121 mission, along with the other six Discovery astronauts is testing new equipment and procedures that increase the safety of shuttles. Fossum, along with astronaut Piers Sellers, also performed three successful spacewalks to deliver key supplies to the International Space Station, NASA officials said.

To show the Aggie spirit on Wednesday, NASA held its own Maroon Out day at Johnson Space Center with employees being encouraged to wear maroon shirts. That gesture was for Fossum, as was a yell practice at The Outpost tavern near the center, at which about 200 Aggies showed up.

"It was a once in a lifetime opportunity," said head yell leader Grant Castleberry of going into Mission Control.

Usually, the only two people allowed in that room to be linked directly to the astronauts during a mission are the flight director and the capsule communicator.

Bryan Austin, a former NASA flight director now working for mission operations at Boeing, is an A&M graduate who helped coordinate the yell practice and conference with Fossum.

Austin said it was exciting to see the yell leaders go into Mission Control, stand next to the flight director and be handed the black phone to speak with Fossum.

During his time as a flight director in mission control, Austin said he always liked to see A&M represented in space and sometimes had astronauts play the Aggie War Hymn or fly an A&M banner while on a mission.

In Perry's phone conversation with Fossum, the governor told his fellow Aggie that he was proud of his accomplishments and promised him two football tickets to the Texas A&M football game against the University of Texas in the fall.

Perry told Fossum, "We are proud of what you're doing. Aggies everywhere are celebrating that we have the first Aggie in space. You're doing a whale of a job for us."

Fossum replied, "I know there are Texas Aggies from the governor's mansion to the fields of Afghanistan and Iraq. I'm proud to carry the Aggie flag to another place," according to a NASA press release.

• Amelia Williamson's e-mail address is amelia.williamson@ theeagle.com.

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