Students talk to space station astronauts live

May 9, 2012  

NASA

O. Henry science students line up with prepared questions to ask the Space Shuttle Astronauts. Astronauts, from left to right: Andre Kuipers, Dan Burbank and Don Pettit. 

By Joanne Foote

You could hear a pin drop at a recent assembly at O.Henry Middle School where both students and staff, waited, anticipating the moment when they would hear a few, very precise instructions on how to proceed. After being prepped on what to expect, at last, after a 15-minute wait, they heard the magic words.

“O. Henry Middle School, this is Mission Control in Houston. Please call station for a voice check.” U.S. Congressman Lamar Smith replied, “Station, this is Congressman Lamar Smith at O.Henry Middle School in Austin, Texas. How do you hear me?”

“Congressman Smith, we’ve got you loud and clear. Welcome aboard the International Space Station (ISS),” confirmed the astronauts aboard the Space Station.

With rare government precision and little other formalities, students were already lined up at the microphone, ready to fire off their questions. Topics ran the gamut, from asking about how one becomes an astronaut, to what it’s like to sleep in space. Seventeen students were able to ask their questions in the 20-minute time allotment. More than 100 other students where on hand to listen to the conversation and see the astronauts projected on the 30-foot screen set up in the gymnasium.

Students wait in line to ask questions to astronauts live aboard the International Space Station.

Expedition 30 Commander Dan Burbank and Flight Engineers Don Pettit, both of the United States, and Andre Kuipers, of the Netherlands, appeared on the big screen. The live question-and-answer session took place while it was simultaneously broadcast live on NASA Television.

“Today’s event supports what you learn in school. Math and science really are the future of our country, and you will be better prepared in the future if you push yourself in these areas. This is my first time to ever do this and I don’t know if I will ever have the opportunity to do it again. You are among a very elite group,” said Smith.

While waiting for the countdown to connect to the ISS, O. Henry Principal Pete Price shared his first experience with space flight to the third period science students in attendance. “When I was your age, in the early 1960s, President Kennedy talked about putting a man on the moon and in 1969, we watch that happen. When man first walked on the moon, my family and I watched that exciting event on television. Now here we are today and I am thrilled to have the kind of technology that we can chat with the Space Station through a downlink. They are 230 miles up in the sky and this is quite an exciting event,” said Price.

The first question was directed to Commander Dan Burbank:  “How long does it take to get in your space suit?” inquired student Levon Midwood.

“It depends on what type of space suite you are asking about. The one we wear for launches takes about 20-30 minutes to put on and then make sure it is leak tight and communications work. The space suite we use for space walks outside are more complicated and take more than an hour to get in, checked out and ready to go,” replied Burbank.

Ireland Tendler asked Burbank how much room there is to move around. “We have a lots of volume in the Space Station. It’s like a big house, divided into modules, or rooms, that you can float between,” he said.

The question many wanted to know the answer to came from Jack Norman, “How do you use the bathroom in space?” Chuckles from the students rippled across the gym, and a smile by the astronauts was seen on the big screen. “That is a very essential question, a lot of people think about it. Weightless can make it challenging, but we use airflow and something like a vacuum cleaner to help with the process. It is an endeavor, but works just fine,” responded Andre Kuipers, of the Netherlands, and one of the flight engineers aboard the space station.

Another student asked what is the process to become an astronaut. Burbank replied, “First and most important you have to send an application to NASA. Nowadays, there are scientists, physicians, pilots, and teachers. Most who get picked did very well at the things they did before applying to NASA. It is important when you decide what you want to do to choose wisely, so that becoming good at it not like work, it is more like play.”

Nick Berndt addressed his question to Flight Engineer Don Petit, of the United States: “What’s your favorite activity to do in space?”

“My favorite thing is working on science and engineering experiments. We are working on a new kind of toilet. We have one up here we call Regenerative Life Support, where we recycle urine and purify it and pump it back in to make coffee,” he said, amid sounds of disgust from the audience.

In response to a question about weightlessness, Kuipers responded, “Weightlessness is a fantastic feeling, it’s a bit like being underwater, floating in a pool, a bit comparable, but you have to adjust and learn how to move around properly.”

“When you look out of space station what do you see?” asked Avery Turner. “The first thing you see in foreground is ISS itself, it is huge, nearly 1 million pounds. Then you see the sun, the moon, planets, and stars, thousands and thousands, of steady piercing points of light. Our planet Earth is spectacular. You can see islands, mountains, oceans, clouds, and earth’s atmosphere. It’s a view I never get tired of, one of the neatest things about being in space,” expressed Burbank.

Student Joe Ibarra asked a question that brought everyone back to earth, “Can you send a Text in space?”

“No, we don’t have cell phones, but we do get to communicate with our family and work regularly, through downlinks similar to this one, which go through the satellite system. We can also send emails,” said Petit.

   Practical questions were also on the minds of students: “How do you get enough water and electricity to the Space Station?”

“Water and oxygen are initially brought through cargo vehicles. We preserve as much as water as possible by trying our best to close as much of the water cycle as possible. It is very difficult and expensive to bring cargo/supplies here. Previously, the space shuttles would bring in supplies, and we preserve as much as possible. Electricity is easy since there is almost one acre of solar panels on the outside of the Station, which we direct towards the sun and convert those to photons into electrons,” said Petit.

“How do you sleep in space and do you have your own bed?” asked another student. “We sleep very well. We float, sleep on the ceiling, it is a bit strange,” explained Kuipers. “There is no pillow or mattress. We do miss those aspects, but we have sleeping cabin, which are private, and very pleasant,” he added.

Gyselle Barrera posed the final question. “Do you miss your home and families?

“What we miss the most is being physically close, to hug our kids and kiss our spouses. We can be close in a virtual sense through something similar to video phone calls at least once a week most anytime we are free, but I really look forwards to that time when we get home. We have reminders, photos and small mementos of our families with us. We also maintain a journal to bring back and share our experiences. It is precious time that we have here, and we are really fortunate to be able to do this. There are a lot of people in line to come here,” Petit answered.

With that timely question, the 20 minutes had disappeared in to thin air. “Thank you for your time, your expertise, and sharing the love of your job. We wish you the best in your endeavors and appreciate all you do for us and your future,” stated Price, O.Henry Principal. “Thanks to Lamar Smith and his office, or we wouldn’t be doing this,” he added. “This type of program is important to our STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering, and math.”

The office of U.S. Congressman Lamar Smith organized the ISS Space Chat, which took place on April 3. In order to participate, the request must come from a member of Congress’s office and the member must be present at the event.  It took several months to organize schedules. Smith, who is on the Science/Space/Technology committee in Congress, was very excited about this opportunity. “I have a 4×4 foot poster taken from the Hubble Telescope on the wall in my office,” said Smith.

O. Henry is the only middle school in Texas to host a downlink with the ISS. The once in a lifetime event was arranged with Science Department Chair Camie Fillpot with assistance from Technology Specialist Iris Szachacz and Assistant Principal Matthew Nelson.

“We love that our principal embraced this opportunity. It’s not all about bubble sheets. We want to create lifelong learning opportunities through this type of extension activity,” said Camie Fillpot, Science chair and Instructional Specialist at O.Henry. Students in all the science classes had an opportunity to submit questions. “I wanted to pick a variety of questions, for the astronauts, some serious, and others just general curiosity questions, but there was only time for a limited amount.”

From NASA media release: This in-flight education downlink is one in a series with educational organizations in the United States and abroad to improve STEM teaching and learning. It is an integral component of NASA’s Teaching from Space Program, which promotes learning opportunities and builds partnerships with the education community using the unique environment of space and NASA’s human spaceflight program.


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