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U.S. Catholic students speak to astronaut on space station

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American student Michael Blais records information from the International Space Station during the February assembly. Photo: CNS/Cori Fugere Urban, Vermont Catholic
American student Michael Blais records information from the International Space Station during the February assembly. Photo: CNS/Cori Fugere Urban, Vermont Catholic

Students at Christ the King School in Rutland in the U.S. got a firsthand experience of the vastness of God’s creation and the work of astronauts aboard the International Space Station as Astronaut Timothy L. Kopra and other crew members orbited the Earth over Australia, travelling at 28,000km/h.

Thanks to amateur radio operators – and the school’s science education specialist – they were the first students in Vermont to speak with an astronaut on the space station.

“God’s creation is ongoing. You never know when it’s going to stop,” Year 8 Sophia Tedesco said, commenting on the thrill of speaking directly to Kopra, a mission specialist/flight engineer.

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She was one of 10 students who asked the astronaut prepared questions during a recent assembly of all students at the school, which is pre-kindergarten to eighth grade.

The students stood on the stage and read their questions into a microphone, and the sound was transmitted by landline telephone to a conference call with an amateur radio operator in Sweden and one in Australia. The man in Sweden was the moderator for the session, and the Australian used his radio to connect the students to the space station as it passed more than 320km above that continent.

They had just nine and a half minutes to speak to Kopra before the signal turned to static; Kopra’s voice was broadcast so everyone in the school auditorium could hear his responses.

Question topics included how he decided to become an astronaut, what physical training he did to prepare to go to space, if he was eating food from the space station garden and if he ever got bored.

He told the students more than 200 experiments were being conducted at the station and that he and other astronauts were trained to deal with debris in space. His most exciting experience in space was the space walk. “It’s pretty amazing,” he said.

“We couldn’t have asked for a better presentation,” principal Susan Hackett told Vermont Catholic, the magazine of the Burlington diocese. “It’s phenomenal for us to be part of this.”

Tom Estill, science education specialist at Christ the King School, orchestrated the program. A former education specialist at Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, he said it was the first time Vermont students talked directly to an astronaut on the International Space Station.

Sporting a gold-color International Space Station lapel pin on his suit, Estill said his goal was to inspire students to do their best and to have a dream. He wants them to know “if they work hard, their dreams can come true.”

Tedesco credited him with getting her “hooked” on space. She would like to work for NASA either on the ground or in space.

He also connected her and Sophia Tommola, a Year 6 student, with the NASA Girls summer program, a virtual mentoring program using commercially available video chat programs to pair NASA mentors with young students anywhere in the country and give young students the opportunity to interact and learn from real engineers, scientists and technologists.

During the Christ the King School assembly, Tommola asked Kopra what advice he would give to a middle-school student who wanted to become an astronaut. “Work hard in class and learn how to get along with people and work as a team,” he replied.

“This was really, really cool,” Tommola said. “I’ve always liked science; it’s kind of like my happy place – anything sciency.”

Members of the amateur radio Green Mountain Wireless Society of Rutland facilitated the call to the space station. Caid McClallen, the project’s coordinator, hopes the session with the astronaut will “spur students along in technology fields.”

A licensed amateur radio operator since he was 13, he said, “You can talk to people around the world, learn about geography and have a lot of fun. It makes the world a little smaller.”

But as Tommola said, “As long as we keep exploring, there will be more for us to explore, and we can keep finding a bigger universe.”

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