APEX — For about 30 minutes more than 600 young students sat cross-legged with their eyes glued forward at Salem Elementary School’s gymnasium quietly listening.
It wasn’t a movie that completely captured their attention, but a black handset and a satellite image. On the other end of the handset was NASA Astronaut Don Pettit and he was calling from space.
Pettit and two other astronauts are living on the International Space Station for a mission that ends in May. At the time of the call– made 10 a.m. Wednesday via amateur radio–Pettit and his fellow crewmembers were traveling about 250 miles above Earth over the Indian Ocean near Australia at 17,500 miles per hour.
The students created and asked their own questions about everything from space hygiene to scientific experiments.
“When you are in orbit does the food taste different?” asked Brenna Hanson, 9, a third-grader.
Pettit said, “We have plenty of good food to eat. It’s freeze-dried or re-hydrated. It’s a lot like camping food.”
Pettit shared some other tidbits about his experiments on the stations. The crew is using new machinery to create a water source by treating and processing urine. Finding a replenishing water supply would be key to any future long term space travel.
Other experiments include trying to grow a zucchini and testing the long-term affects of weightlessness on muscles. Pettit and the other crew members blog and post video of their experiments on the NASA website.
“Do you bring enough clothes for the whole mission or do you wash your clothes? If so, how?” asked Matthew Rice, 10, a fifth-grader.
There is no way to wash clothes in space, so the astronauts wear clothes for seven to nine days before changing them out, Pettit said.
Matthew’s father Tony Rice, is a Solar System Ambassador for NASA’s jet propulsion laboratory and recommended the Amateur Radio on the International Space Station program to the school’s principal in April 2011. Salem Elementary competed with institutions around the world for a chance to get transmission time with the space station crew.
“This is an excellent program for the kids because they are seeing something real,” Rice said. “They’re seeing something live that is happening right there and then and it’s showing them we’re still in space.”
He said he frequently gets asked by children he works with why NASA shut down the shuttle missions. These kinds of programs help students understand that scientists are still interested in space,
Kyler Froning,8, had one word for the experience: “Astonishing.”
“It just feels like we’re so small in the whole world and someone is actually exploring that world,” said the second-grader.
Six-year-old Mason Smith understood how special the occasion was.
“Well, it was very fun,” Mason said. “Cause you only have one opportunity to do that.”
To find out more about the Amateur Radio for the International Space Station program visit www.arrl.org. To learn more about Pettit’s mission and NASA’s Expedition 30/31 visit wwww.nasa.gov/station.