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Astronaut twins Mark & Scott Kelly get hero's welcome in hometown

WEST ORANGE, NJ -- Not all of the kids of West Orange, New Jersey's Pleasantdale Elementary School were exactly thrilled when they heard their school would be renamed to Kelly Elementary, according to the school's PTA members. But they quickly warmed to the idea -- and on Thursday, they cheered the loudest of all as members of the school community and city residents gathered to celebrate their identical-twin hometown astronauts, Mark and Scott Kelly.

The festivities began in the morning, in front of the soon-to-be-renamed school, where the duo was set to unveil the new school sign and cut a ceremonial ribbon. Later, they stopped at West Orange, New Jersey's town hall to receive the town's first Mayoral Medals, and to have May 19 marked Kelly Family Day. (Check out our full photo gallery of Kelly astronaut twins in West Orange.)

"I think it's a most deserved honor," said Phyllis Tolkowsky, who told Space.com she'd lived in West Orange for 55 years. "Because it brings honor not only to the school -- my children went to the school -- but to the town and to the country. They deserve all the recognition they can get." Tolkowsky, 84, was among the first to arrive at the morning event, folding beach chair in hand. [Gallery: The Kelly Elementary School Celebration]

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Mark and Scott Kelly with their new mayoral medals at West Orange, N.J. town hall May 19, 2016. Mark Kelly's wife, former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, is at right. Jeremy Lips / Space.com

The Kellys came out to cheers from students seated on the ground and special guests in seats off to the right. The twins also were celebrated by West Orange's mayor, their board of education president, superintendent and other officials, as well as serenaded by the school's fifth-grade choir.

Speakers frequently addressed the students, who were all wearing new Kelly Elementary School T-shirts, and shared hopes that the Kellys' legacy would inspire them. Mark Kelly flew on four space shuttle missions, repairing the Hubble Space Telescope and helping to build the International Space Station. Scott Kelly has gone to space four times as well -- two long-duration stays on the station, including his most recent nearly yearlong stay, which broke the American record for the most continuous time in space and most cumulative time in space. (Well before that, they attended grade school on that very spot, from 1970 to 1976 -- an accomplishment the speakers lauded frequently.)

The students had gotten to know the twins already -- Mark had spoken at the school, and Scott had talked with the entire student body via webcast while on board the space station, demonstrating what it's like in microgravity.

While talking with students after Thursday's event, the Kellys' exploratory mindset seemed to have rubbed off on the kids -- at least a little bit.

"It's really dangerous, and I'm really concerned about the whole fact that I could die -- but it just seems so cool," fifth-grader Martius Nicholas told Space.com after the ribbon cutting. "It might be fine, because scientists are always getting smarter and smarter, and they're always learning new things. And we've been doing this for years. So maybe it's all right."

Other students nearby said they'd want to travel to space -- but maybe only for a short trip, rather than the 340-day marathon Scott Kelly returned from just two and a half months ago.

"Oh, I don't know -- he needs a vacation," Mark Kelly said of his brother. "He just got back from a trip -- he traveled 200 million miles [320 million kilometers] in 340 days." At a news conference after the renaming, the Kelly brothers were asked what's next for them. The pair seemed unsure. The town hall event was open to the public, and hosted a much bigger crowd on the drizzly Thursday afternoon. The Kelly brothers arrived with a loud motorcycle escort, and police and firemen lined the walkway as they headed up the town hall steps. Many members of the Kelly family were in attendance and were honored, including Mark's wife, former Arizona congresswoman Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. And the twins got the first Mayoral Medals ever awarded in West Orange. When the Kelly twins were finally done, they paused to sign autographs for a long line of space fans, before finally making their exit.

"And my feet still feel it," Scott Kelly added.

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Mark and Scott Kelly humored a long line of autograph seekers after their West Orange town hall event on May 19, 2016. Jeremy Lips / Space.com

Email Sarah Lewin at slewin@space.com or follow her @SarahExplains. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+. Original article on Space.com.

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