Cori Holmes, 9, of Kenai, asks NASA Astronaut Clayton Anderson, aboard the International Space Station, a question Saturday from the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska. The center invited any elementary through high school student living in the Kenai Peninsula Borough to submit questions to ask the astronaut during the contact.
Photo by Joseph Robertia
The International Space Station zipped over the southern Aleutians at 17,500 miles per hour, coming within range of the Challenger Learning Center's radio antenna at 11:45 a.m. Saturday. Dale Hershberger tracked the station's orbit on his laptop and began transmitting his message as the spacecraft inched closer to Kenai.
"NAISS coming in loud and clear," NASA Astronaut Clayton C. Anderson's voice came in through the static over Hershberger's ham radio. "Go ahead with your questions."
Nearly a dozen kids lined up at the radio's microphone to ask Anderson questions in Alaska's first-ever official hookup with a NASA astronaut aboard the orbiting space station. Leah Eskelin, the center's lead flight director, said one of the astronauts' goals, apart from their mission, is to make a contact to all 50 states via amateur radio.
"Alaska hasn't had an opportunity until now," she said. "It took a concerted effort on all parts."
Last year the learning center contacted Expedition 13 Flight Engineer Jeffrey Williams and had a short question and answer session with him, but it wasn't sanctioned by NASA, Eskelin said.
"Our last contact was at 5:30 in the morning," Eskelin said. The space station has to be high enough above the horizon in order for the Learning Center to receive a clear signal. "Height determines the length of time we have to make contact," she said, adding that they expected an eight-minute window, giving the kids enough time to ask 15 questions.
Hershberger, a volunteer at the Challenger Learning Center and ham radio operator for more than 30 years, said because the station's orbit only comes to within 51 degrees north and south latitude that it would only be 13 degrees above the horizon when the center is able to contact it.
"When he comes out over the southern end of the Aleutian chain then we'll have the footprint," Hershberger said. "At best we can have 13 degree elevation."
At 210 miles above the Earth's surface and traveling a steady clip of 17,500 miles per hour, the space station's orbit doesn't change, Hershberger said. Last year's contact was early in the morning because the planet moves all the time, he said.
When Anderson's voice rang out through the center's surround sound, Hershberger didn't waste time with pleasantries and handed the microphone to 8-year-old Bryan Hanson.
"Do you believe in life on other planets?" Hanson asked.
Anderson replied that while parts of the solar system may not contain life as we think of it here on Earth, he's confident there's life elsewhere in the universe.
"I liked it all," Hanson said, standing in the lobby with his family following the event. "It was neat asking questions and looking at the chart."
Hanson said he builds airplanes, rockets, cars and submarines and wants to be an aerospace engineer when he grows up. Learning that there is a small window of opportunity when it comes to talking to an astronaut was interesting, he said.
"I learned there are certain places where he can come in and out so you can talk to each other," Bryan said.
For Cori Holmes, 9, and Emily Hamilton, 8, talking to someone floating in outer space was exciting. Hamilton and Holmes asked Anderson a variety of questions ranging from the role women play in space travel to what man-made and natural features are visible from space.
"Getting to know the things he likes to do and the things he likes was cool," they said. "It took 40 to 45 minutes (for him) to get around the world so we could talk to him."
In addition to talking to Alaska school kids and engaging in routine maintenance of the spacecraft, Eskelin said, Anderson is studying vitamin and mineral loss in outer space, which involves taking blood and urine samples. So when Cassi Holmes, 8, asked him how zero gravity affects his digestive system, Anderson replied that learning how to use the toilet in space was difficult at first, but he soon figured it out.
"Your body knows when it's time to go," he said.
Anderson was within range of the learning center's antenna for about 10 minutes, giving him enough time to take questions from the audience. The space station soared over the Canadian border when Anderson's transmission cut out at 11:55 a.m.
Jessica Cejnar can be reached at email@example.com.
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