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Today's Family Magazine

Shaker Heights students communicate live with Space Station astronauts

Nov 21, 2017 10:44AM
By Donna L. Robinson

On Wednesday, November 1, 2017, students in Shaker Heights had the opportunity to speak with NASA astronauts on the space station for a 20-minute Earth-to-space call. The Shaker Heights City School District was chosen for their first ever in-flight education downlink with NASA astronauts. Shaker was the only school district in Ohio to host this program in 2017.  The most recent NASA downlink in Ohio was held in 2015 at the Great Lakes Science Center.

Students asked astronauts Joe Acaba and Mark Vande Hei, questions via the downlink. Acaba and Vande Hei have been aboard the International Space Station on Expedition 53 since September 12, and will return to Earth in February, 2018. 

Jennifer Kuhel, communications specialist for the Shaker Heights City School District, said that Bryan Child, planetarium director and high school astronomy teacher, learned about the opportunity at a conference earlier this year.  After he did some research he reached out to NASA for the in-flight education downlink application.

Child approached Shaker Heights High School Principal Jonathan Kuehnle about the possibility and Mr. Kuehnle encouraged him to apply. Child applied despite knowing NASA rarely awards a downlink to a school district on its first application.  Shaker was selected through a competitive process thanks to Child.

“At least two students were selected from each of the district’s eight buildings to ask a question,” said Kuhel.  “Lomond Elementary and the high school both had four questions.  We notified principals of the selected students and sent them all the necessary materials (including NASA media release forms) to distribute to teachers and parents. Parents were encouraged to rehearse the questions (on a note card) with the students prior to the event.”

On the day of the downlink, Shaker students from grades K–12, teachers, parents, and guests filled the high school’s large auditorium to watch the students ask the astronauts questions, who were viewed live on a large screen. 

According to NASA, International Space Station in-flight education downlinks support NASA's efforts to encourage K–12 students to study and pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).  Downlinks are facilitated by the Johnson Space Center Office of Education as part of STEM on Station, and use the unique experience of human spaceflight to promote and enhance STEM education.

When Kuhel was asked, how this downlink event was welcomed by the schools and community of  Shaker Heights, she replied, “From a communications standpoint, we invited many community stakeholders to attend the event live.  At the building level, students watched the event live in large groups (in gyms, auditoriums, multi-purpose rooms) on NASA TV.  We also sent district-wide emails to families to remind them to tune in to the event and we posted on our district website and on social media.  Anecdotally from teachers, administrators and students, the event was exciting and positive.”

Child concurred, “This special event was a great experience for everyone in the Shaker Heights City School District. For me, personally, this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  And the main reason we do things like this is so the students and the audience watching on NASA TV can have the same sense of awe.”

Some of the questions asked by the students were:
Q. Have you made any important discoveries?
A. (Astronaut Mark Vande Hei)  There are so many discoveries, we want to make sure we pick out a good one.  I can tell you one.  I’m not sure whether it’s a discovery, or a potential of a discovery.  There’s a lot of hope that some of the lung tissue that we’ve been growing on the space station may help contribute to finding a cure for cancer.  There’s also been a lot of learning about regenerating water and making it clean. So, we actually recycle all the fluids on the space station.  That’s a useful technology to use on the ground for helping get clean water where it’s hard to get it. 

Q. After all of the training and preparations for going to the ISS, what is one thing you were NOT prepared for, and how did you deal with it?
A. (Astronaut Joe Acaba)  We spent a lot of years getting ready to come to the space station, and the one thing we cannot simulate on the ground is micro-gravity.  It takes a lot of effort to learn how to control that. 

Q. Can you describe what a typical day on the ISS is like?
A. (Astronaut Mark Vande Hei)  I would say, at 6:00 am in the morning is when we wake up and eat…6:30am is when we have a meeting with the ground on any changes or what’s going to happen in the day.  We have a schedule that’s uploaded for us.  We work on that schedule the whole day.  Typically, we have an hour for lunch and work till about 7:30 pm.  Part of the work day (typically for 2½ hours) we exercise.  And after 7:30 pm we have another meeting with the ground, and then we have time to get ready for bed, which involves having dinner. 

Q. Why is going to space so important?
A. (Astronaut Mark Vande Hei)  I think it’s important because it’s a challenging endeavor that focuses our attention, and the attention of science into learning new things.  When focusing on doing challenging things, we end up with lots of things we call spin-off technologies…things that we get unexpectedly that help our lives on the ground right away.  Also, when we do science experiments, it’s good to try to change variables to how things react, to get to a better understanding of how things work.  Here on the space station, we are able to have a sense of weightlessness, and we can see how things behave from combustion, to plant growth without having that sense of up or down to affect it.  That helps us have a better understanding on how things work, and that helps us out in the future.  

Q. We know you both took part in the recent space walks.  Can you describe the first feeling you experienced when you were outside and saw the Earth as you were floating above it?
A. (Astronaut Mark Vande Hei)  My first thought was be careful and don’t make a mistake.  We trained a lot for that event, but somehow it really hit home when I was outside and could look at any direction and see the horizon of the Earth and see the blackness of space…and there was nothing between me and it.

Q. Are there germs in space?
A. (Astronaut Joe Acaba)  Yes, there are germs in space.  We all have germs on the outside of our body, but a lot of those [germs] are beneficial to us.  We do spend a lot of time cleaning the space station every weekend.  So, if you think you have chores to do at home, we have ours as well.

Q. Were you super scared while going out in space away from earth and while you are actually out in space?
A. (Astronaut Mark Vande Hei)  Yes, fear was a factor. I would say that I was very attentive.  I’m not certain I was more afraid of physical harm, or fear of making a mistake.  There is so much invested in getting us ready, and so many people are supporting us, that the last thing I wanted to do is let anybody down.  The second time I wasn’t as concerned as the first time.