Stratford students interview astronaut aboard space station

lfabian@macon.comApril 3, 2013 

Stratford Academy students had an out-of-this-world learning experience Wednesday morning.

With help from amateur radio operators on the West Coast, more than a dozen young people interviewed an astronaut circling Earth aboard the International Space Station.

Ninth-grader Ally Raymond was first up at the microphone.

“It was really nerve-racking because all my friends were out there,” Ally said in the school’s gymnasium, where about 1,000 people gathered to listen to the question-and-answer session. “I wasn’t really nervous about the people in California or out in space.”

The stress of speaking in front of the crowd did build as Ally stood for a couple of minutes in complete silence that was needed for the conversation.

“What inspired your love of space and desire to be an astronaut? Over,” she asked astronaut Chris Hadfield, the commander of Expedition 35.

The response from the first Canadian to walk in space was drowned out by static.

Stratford’s partnership with NASA, Amateur Radio on the International Space Station and the Macon Amateur Radio Club enabled the private school to conduct what was expected to be a 10-minute session.

A special phone line installed at the school connected to the ARISS communication link at Santa Rosa Junior College in California.

With the space station orbiting more than 200 miles overhead at a rate of more than 17,000 mph, organizers made it clear the link was not guaranteed.

“This is an experiment. It can fail,” the voice on the phone line had earlier warned.

Kelly Causey, Stratford’s curriculum and technology director who coordinated the project, said she couldn’t sleep the night before.

“I was mostly worried about the kids,” Causey said. “I didn’t want them to be disappointed.”

The Macon school started working on its application last year after teachers Sara Walcott and Jil Hulgan Pinkston traveled to Huntsville, Ala., for Space Camp.

“I think it was fantastic,” said Walcott, who hoped her students would remember this for the rest of their lives.

She was disappointed Hadfield’s replies were not clear.

“I could catch a few words, and even hearing space static can be exciting,” she said.

The link only lasted about seven minutes before the space station moved out of range.

As part of the project, teachers have been incorporating lessons from space in the curriculum all year.

“There’s not a single person on Earth who has not benefited from space exploration,” said Pinkston, a science teacher.

The symphonic band played excerpts of its spring concert, titled “To the Stars.”

The April 25 program will feature a synchronized space video presentation timed to the music.

In what organizers believed was the first space link at a Middle Georgia school, only 16 out of 26 students were able to speak.

A committee reviewed the questions and selected the some of the best of the bunch.

“How do you know if it is day or night?”

“What do you do to avoid collisions with space junk?”

“Do you participate in social media from space?”

After seventh-grader Amelia Bunker asked how space changed Hadfield’s sleep cycle and eating habits, the static increased until the connection was lost.

Hunter Quintal waited patiently for his turn at the microphone, trying to keep up a smile for the crowd as they tried in vain to re-establish contact.

If he could have spoken to the astronaut, he wanted to know how the confined quarters changed Hadfield’s personal behavior.

The Stratford junior thought the overall experience was exciting.

“We just heard a lot of radio interference for a little while and then we actually got to hear him,” Hunter said. “It was hard to hear his answers, but I think the crowd enjoyed it.”

Hunter and the remaining students got to ask their questions, anyway, even after the recorded interview ended.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” he said.

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