Midvale Students Talk With Astronaut in Orbit

MIDVALE — If you want to learn what it’s like to be an astronaut on the International Space Station, get a bunch of elementary school kids to fire questions at him.

That happened at Midvalley Elementary School, where ham operators of the Utah Amateur Radio Association had erected antennas on the roof and then connected with the ISS as it passed overhead Wednesday morning. During a brief interview with astronaut Jeffrey N. Williams, 19 students managed to bombard him with queries that shed light on Williams’ motivations and education, life on the station and space food.

[Part of the crowd of Midvale students waiting for the live connection with the International Space Station]

About 160 pupils sat quietly in rows on an auditorium floor while another 20 waited on the stage’s step with their written queries. Parents, Principal Carla Burningham, teachers, media reps and officials of Canyons School District watched from the sides and rear. For several tense minutes, a projection charted the progress of the station orbiting above the Pacific Ocean and moving toward the North American continent. Static hissed from the loudspeakers.

Randy Kohlwey of the radio association, seated at a table with computer monitors and shortwave radio consoles, picked up his microphone. “NA1SS, NA1SS, Whiskey Seven Sierra Papa,” he said.

[Randy Kohlwey at the radio controls]

No answer. “NA1SS, Whiskey Seven Sierra Papa,” he repeated.

Then from space came Williams’ voice: “Whiskey Seven Sierra Papa, this is NA1SS. I hear you.”

“Yes!” breathed someone in the audience.

Then the questions poured in a torrent as students took turns standing at a microphone.

“Hi, my name is Sia,” began the first girl. “What inspired you to be an astronaut, and did Neil Armstrong have anything to do with it? Over.”

Williams, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, answered, “Oh, I think Neil Armstrong had a lot to do with … inspired almost every astronaut.” He added that he was inspired by all the early astronauts and early test pilots.

Janacea asked how astronauts decide which experiments to take into space, and which was the most important. “There’s a team of scientists on the ground that do that [choose experiments] well in advance before our flight,” Williams said. An important task they do is learning to live in weightlessness.

Landon wanted to know which parts of the International Space Station need most repairs. Williams said, “It’s not a lot different than your house. The moving parts need a lot of repairs, that is, fans and also the lights. … We have a lot of computers on board; of course they take a lot of maintenance as well, just like on the ground.”

What’s the average day like on the ISS? asked Brandon. There’s no such thing as an average day in orbit, said the astronaut. They usually wake about 6 a.m., have breakfast and clean up for a couple of hours, spend a working day with experiments, make repairs, exercise 2 1/2 hours and go to bed after supper, usually about 10 p.m.

To Julian’s question about the most important thing he brought with him to the ISS, Williams said, “Hi Julian. Everything we need to live and work on is already here on board so we don’t have to bring a whole lot. So what’s important to me is, of course, to bring pictures of my family and little mementos that kind of keep me close to my family.”

Emma asked, “Were you scared to go aboard the International Space Station? If so, what did you think would happen?”

“Why, if I was scared I’d be in the wrong business.” He acknowledged the risks of space flight, adding, “We’re willing to take those risks.”

[A starry-eyed Taylor waits to talk with astronaut Jeffrey Williams. Students’ last names were not released.]

Responding to Taylor’s question about his education, he said he graduated from high school, went to West Point Military Academy for four years, spent two years in grad school, went to test pilot school for a year, and had another year of graduate school.

It takes a couple of weeks to plan and get ready for a space walk, he told Sarah.

“Hi, my name is Tyler,” said the next student. “How do you stay healthy in space?”

“It’s pretty much the same way we stay healthy on Earth. We eat a good balanced diet, we get our exercise every day, we get our rest. …”

Shayia asked how the crew gets hot and cold water for showers. No showers on the space station, he answered; they take sponge baths, which require less water. He described heating and cooling the water.

[Shayia asks about hot and cold water aboard the International Space Station. All photos by Joe Bauman]

News goes to the Space Station every day, Williams told Maddie. The spacemen and women have email and can call home, though it can be hard to keep up with some things.

What is it like to work with people from different countries? asked Nick.

“Nick, one of the biggest rewards of the Space Station is working with people from other countries and other perspectives of the world. It really makes the Space Station international.”

To the next question, he said, “Zaylie, we eat all kinds of food on board. … We have a lot of international food as well. We have a lot of Russian food, American food, European food, French food, Japanese food, Canadian food … A lot of it is ready to eat; some of it needs to be rehydrated.”

Keagan asked how astronauts get to and from the station. They fly in NASA’s Space Shuttle, Williams said, and the Russian Soyuz space capsule. “And we’ll also return on Soyuz to Kazakhstan in March.”

Lexie wondered whether, “with all the people and equipment,” the ISS gets crowded.

That can happen if several people are working in the same part of the station, he said, especially when the shuttle crew is aboard. “We had 12 people on board last week, but the Space Station’s very big, and with a Space Station crew of six we’re usually spread out all over, so it doesn’t get very crowded.”

In fact, the ISS is almost deserted today, with only Williams and a cosmonaut, Flight Engineer Max Suraev, flying the laboratory. On Wednesday, according to NASA, they “enjoyed their second of two off-duty days,” during which the radio interviews took place. Three additional crew members are to arrive at the station on Dec. 23.

Williams told Mary about the two types of spacesuits they have, one for space walks and the other for survival if the station were to spring a leak.

“How do you sleep on the International Space Station?” Patrick wondered.

“Each of us have a crew quarters, Patrick, that we sleep in.” A sleeping bag is tied to a wall; the member gets in and zips it up. It’s comfortable to sleep in space, he said.

Braxton wondered what games are played in the ISS, and Williams told him about such diversions as experiments where lasers shoot into water.

Zach asked, “How old is the International Space Station and how long will it be in use?”

The first element of the station was put into orbit in 1998, Williams began, and static drowned out the rest of his answer. The ISS had moved out of range. Radio contact had lasted less than nine minutes.

The final student, Jacee, asked her question anyway, about animals in the station, but no reply could be heard.

Principal Burningham said the session was broadcast live throughout the school and on the Internet. “These things are the kind of things that plant the seed in the students’ minds,” she said.

“We hope it did good things for your heart and your soul.”

As the meeting wrapped up, one boy seated on the floor was thinking about weightless life aboard the ISS. “That would be awesome,” he said to a friend. Holding his arms straight out in front of himself, he said, “You’d be like Superman!”

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