Peninsula students talk with space shuttle crew


Posted: Friday, December 22, 2006


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  Ben Gilman, 14, asks the crew of the Discovery to describe what they eat during the conference. Grade school students had 10 minutes to talk to the crew of the spacecraft Photo by M. Scott Moon

The crew of the space shuttle Discovery is projected Wednesday on screens at the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska as youngsters question them during a live press conference.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

When the Alaska state flag is raised 240 miles above its audience, it’s sure to get a reaction — especially if the audience is a group of 150 school children waiting at the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska in Kenai to chat with their state’s first astronaut.

By way of a live video downlink from the Shuttle Discovery, elementary- and middle-school students had the opportunity Thursday to ask preapproved questions of the space shuttle’s crew, including pilot Bill Oefelein, of Anchorage.

Following a brief question-and-answer session with CNN and another with ABC News, the Johnson Space Center in Houston informed Kenai that their turn was next.

Just as the questions were to begin, shuttle crew members aboard the International Space Station produced the familiar blue flag with its stars of gold and hung it behind them as a backdrop during the 10-minute visit from space.

The kids roared in approval.

“What’s the best thing about flying the space shuttle and about being in space?” asked Kenai Middle School student Matthew Morse.

“The views are spectacular,” said Oefelein. “I’ve seen the lights of the cities and thunderstorms ...” he said, adding he also is enjoying working with the team of astronauts on the repair mission to the space station.

Alaska’s first astronaut also told the students he was able to see Anchorage “a couple days ago.”

“I could see all the way from Kodiak to Wasilla,” he said.

Kaleidoscope Charter School’s Cori Holmes wanted to know about colors on Earth as seen from space.

“They’re absolutely spectacular,” said Robert Curbeam Jr., a veteran mission specialist aboard his third space flight. He said he has especially enjoyed the deep blues of the oceans and vibrant greens from the Amazon Forest.

Sam Schilling, a student at Nikiski Middle School, asked European Space Agency mission specialist Christer Fuglesang how micro gravity affects the growth of plants, and asked if any plants are growing at the space station now.

Fuglesang, a physicist and native of Sweden, said experiments on plants are being conducted on the space station, and said plants need gravity in order for their roots to travel down into the soil.

“The roots don’t find their way,” Fuglesang said. “They go in any direction.”

When asked by Sterling Elementary School’s Denali Goodwill how medical emergencies would be handled if they occurred in space, Oefelein said he and Mission Commander Mark Polansky have received special training and “can handle anything from treating a minor cut to opening an airway.”

“We’re like paramedics,” he said.

Other questions ranged from wanting to know what astronauts found to be the most exciting and most amazing things they’ve done in space to curiosity about the food they eat.

“We eat the same kinds of things as you do on the ground,” said Nicholas Patrick, mission specialist, in response to a question from Emily Halstead of Kaleidoscope Charter School.

“What’s different is how we eat things,” Patrick said.

“Without gravity, you can’t drink from a glass,” he said, as he showed the students how a straw-equipped bottle of apple juice escaped his hand in near zero gravity.


Ben Gilman, 14, asks the crew of the Discovery to describe what they eat during the conference. Grade school students had 10 minutes to talk to the crew of the spacecraft

Photo by M. Scott Moon

With the audience chuckling, a small, disk-like morsel of food drifted weightlessly past Patrick and between the other astronauts before finding its way into the gaping mouth of Alaska’s Oefelein, much to the delight of the youngsters.

“That was really funny when Bill (Oefelein) caught the Cheerio in his mouth,” said Kaleidoscope student Mariah Schloeman later.

“It looks like fun,” said Alex Bergholtz, also a 9-year-old Kaleidoscope student. “You get to eat really funny food and it flies all over the place.”

Schloeman, who was not one of the students selected to ask a question, said she would have asked if the astronauts have ever been in space longer than 12 days.

“I read in a science book — a book on space — that no one has ever been in space longer than 12 days,” she said.

When asked if she might like to be an astronaut some day, Schloeman said, “No. I want to be a dog groomer. I really like dogs.”

Phil Hermanek can be reached at phillip.hermanek

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