Middle school students at Faith Christian Academy in Orlando had an out-of-this-world experience — the chance to talk with an astronaut on the International Space Station. The school partnered with amateur radio operators to connect with the station last week.
Eighth grader Elyssa Santos is hanging out with her friends in the atrium at her school. There are tables set up displaying science and space tech — like freeze-dried ice cream. She’s excited because in just a few minutes, she’s going to be talking to an astronaut.
Science teacher Kristi Carrington set up the conversation with the space station by partnering with ARISS, a group of amateur radio operators who visit schools and set up radio connections to the station. The International Space Station has two amateur, or HAM, radios on board for safety. They’re rarely used for an emergency but when the station flies over head, licensed operators can use a transmitter and receiver to talk to astronauts.
Carrington picked about a dozen students to ask a question as the station passes overhead.
“Some of them are actually nervous cause they don’t want to mess up,” said eight grader Nick Fonseca. “I’m pretty confident about it.” He plans to ask the astronaut about whether or not people recognize him on the street and how much fuel it takes to get to space.
The students pile into the school’s auditorium. A map is projected on big screens in front of the room showing the real-time location of the space station. Four antennas mounted on the school’s roof track the station. In order for the connection to work, the ISS must be directly above the school.
Once it does make the connection, they have less than 10 minutes to talk to the astronauts on board. Operator David Johnson gets on the radio just as the station comes into range.
“…this is November – Alpha – One – Sierra – Sierra, how copy?” responds Canadian Space Agency Astronaut David Saint-Jacques.
The hundreds of students in the auditorium are on the edge of their seats listening intently to Saint-Jaques, who is also a HAM operator. He answers questions asked by their classmates like one from seventh grader Grace D’Arpino.
“What would you say is your most important or meaningful experience in space?” asks D’Arpino.
“For me,” Saint-Jacques responds, “it’s seeing a beautiful planet, seeing how fragile it is, it really makes me feel responsible for our planet. Also seeing there’s no borders from space makes you realize humans are all one species and we must work together for a better future. Over.”
In just a few short minutes, the station is out of range. For David Johnson, it’s the end of a days-long assignment that began from his home in Indiana. He made the trip in his car, bringing all the equipment to the school, and setting it up for the call.
“You’re scared to death until you hear the astronaut talk back cause you know any little thing can go wrong,” said Johnson. “But once he answers back and you get to see the kids – you know, they go from being nervous to really going ‘holy cow, I’m talking to somebody on the space station.’”
Teacher Kristi Carrington said there’s a lot of focus at her school on art and athletics, but she hopes events like this inspire students who might have an interest in science and tech.
“It is a high hope, but that some of my kids will walk away saying I want to do this, I want to be a part of space exploration, take the classes, do what I need to do, prepare myself to do something this adventurous with my life,” said Carrington.
For Santos, it was a once-in-a-lifetime moment.
“I thought it was really cool, I was talking to an astronaut who is in space right now. I thought it was really cool,” she said.
The ARRIS program works with about 20 schools a year but volunteers want to extend the program’s reach and connect even more students to astronauts in space.