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story.lead_photo.caption Retired Air Force Col. Thomas Akers holds up a pack of Beeman gum given to him by Jeremy Amick, at right, Monday after being presented the Missouri Meritorious Service Medal by Gov. Mike Parson. At left is Lily Baker, 7, who hopes to be an astronaut and second from right is Kaye Akers, Col. Akers' wife. Beemans gum was popular among several astronauts. Photo by Julie Smith / News Tribune.

Gov. Mike Parson presented the Missouri National Guard Meritorious Service Medal Ribbon to a retired U.S. Air Force colonel and astronaut during a pinning ceremony Monday morning.

The award is presented to present and former Guard members who perform valorous or meritorious service in support of the state.

Thomas Akers grew up in Eminence, a small town in the southern reaches of the state, where he graduated as valedictorian of his high school. From there, he attended the University of Missouri-Rolla (now the Missouri University of Science and Technology) and earned a master of science degree in 1975.

The university has deep ties to space programs, Akers said. They stretch back to Gemini and Apollo.

Akers became a math teacher but, after an encounter with a U.S. Air Force recruiter, joined the service.

He attended Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in California. A building on the base contained photographs of all the Apollo astronauts. The photos inspired him to join the program. Akers applied three times before he was accepted.

In October 1990, Akers made his first of four trips on shuttles into space.

"The space shuttle — it's an awesome machine," Akers said. "It's amazing what that vehicle did do."

Shuttles flew more than 130 missions, he said Monday.

Akers' first space walk was unplanned, he said. He was among a four-member crew on a shuttle that was tasked with making a repair to a satellite. The repair was supposed to be a two-man job — placing a new rocket motor on a stranded satellite.

Two men had trained to attach a bar to the bottom of the satellite so the remote arm could grasp the satellite and hold it in place while they did the repairs. It didn't work. So the crew decided to send three people outside so two could hold the satellite while the third attached the rocket motor.

"The space shuttle's not designed for three space walkers. There are only two umbilicals for oxygen and electricity," Akers said.

When you're not hooked up to the umbilical, you only have a few hours of battery life to power your suit and oxygen to breathe, he said.

"You could literally maneuver this 9,000-pound object with your fingertips," he said about the satellite. "It wasn't hard."

Coming up with a solution to the problem was an example of teamwork between people on the ground and those in the shuttle, Akers continued. The space program needs America's intelligent scientists and engineers (like those problem-solvers) to work in the space program if man is to go back to the moon and eventually to Mars.

During the pinning ceremony, Parson said he'd had a chance to work with numerous astronauts following the July 25, 2007, Space Shuttle Challenger explosion. He was sheriff in Polk County at the time and was called to Texas to help with the recovery effort.

"It was the first time I had really ever met astronauts other than in formal-type settings," Parson said. "I really got to sit down and learn who they were and what they represented. And I couldn't have been more proud than when I left down there."

Akers tries to play down the intelligence of the astronauts, Parson said, "but we're lucky to have people like Tom, who want to serve in that capacity."

The men and women are dedicated to their jobs and the country, Parson said.

It's good to see that someone coming from small-town roots in Missouri could dedicate so much of themselves to the nation, he said.

"Nobody does anything on their own," Akers said. "I'm here today because of God blessing me first — and then the result of a lot of teamwork."

Akers said he is grateful to have opportunities to represent Eminence and Missouri.

Parson introduced 7-year-old Lily Baker to Akers. Lily, the daughter of a Governor's Office employee, had dreamed of meeting an astronaut. Wearing a T-shirt sporting a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) logo, she quietly strolled up to the podium in the governor's office and stood for photographs with the dignitaries.

Afterward, Lily said she wasn't certain when she started to like space and the planets — it was way back when she was 6 .

There are things she likes about what an astronaut does.

"They go to space and get to visit the moon and stuff," she explained. "And I just like that — it's cool."

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