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MiSci calling to Space Station, loud and clear

MiSci calling to Space Station, loud and clear

Youngsters enthralled by conversion with astronaut aboard space station.
MiSci calling to Space Station, loud and clear
Members of the Teen Science Cafe at miSci ask questions via radio of an astronaut on the International Space Station.
Photographer: Daniel Fitzsimmons

On Saturday, astronaut R. Shane Kimbrough was orbiting 155 miles above earth, somewhere right above Louisiana, as commander of the International Space Station.

Almost directly below him, for a few minutes just before 3 p.m., a group of children was gathered in the radio station room at the Museum of Innovation and Science in Schenectady, eagerly waiting to pepper Kimbrough with questions via radio during the short window when contact with the station was possible.

The room was tense as a result of some technical difficulties, and the prospect of speaking with an astronaut live. James MacMurray, president of the Schenectady Amateur Radio Association, was attempting to raise Kimbrough on the radio. Finally, the astronaut’s voice broke through the static.

“I hear you loud and clear as well … great to hear you and your students there,” said Kimbrough.
Those gathered in the room wanted to cheer, but they also needed to remain silent. Once a sustained connection was made, the questions began flowing.

Have you ever been on a spacewalk?

“I have been on two spacewalks before, and it was absolutely amazing. It’s a lot of hard work out there, you’re really focused for about seven hours,” said Kimbrough, noting that two more spacewalks are slated for January. “You’re really concentrating, it’s physically demanding moving the space suit around.”

The kids, many of whom are part of the Teen Science Cafe at the museum, asked questions ranging from the whimsical (how do you celebrate birthdays on the ISS?) to the existential (has seeing Earth from space changed your perspective on humanity?).

“I think it’s only strengthened my views I had before I came to space,” said Kimbrough. “Earth is very fragile, that’s one thing I have noticed, we have to protect it as humans. One of our missions is to protect our planet, the only planet that we have, and the only atmosphere that we have.

“One thing you can see from up here is the thin layer of atmosphere that protects all the people on Earth from dying.”
Would you participate in a future ISS mission?
“It’s an amazing, beautiful place,” said Kimbrough. “I would love to have the opportunity and the chance to come back to space again, it’s such a unique environment.”

What do you do if something goes wrong on the ISS?

“We’re trained and trained and trained, and I think that’s part of it, just being trained on everything and all the systems, and trusting your crewmates,” said Kimbrough, noting that the crew trains together for two years before traveling to space. “We know each other, we know how each other reacts, and me being the commander one of my jobs is to just keep everyone calm.”

Sophia Lenigk, 13, who asked if Kimbrough would return for a future mission on the ISS, marveled that she and her peers were able to communicate with someone in space.
“It was quite interesting,” she said. “They’re all the way out there and we’re still able to connect with them.”
Lenigk said she chose her question after a bit of brainstorming.

“Those missions are for six months and I wondered if someone would want to go again after being away from their family for so long,” she said.
Ruben McWilliams, 17, asked if Kimbrough believes there is evidence of life forms in space. Due to technical difficulties, however, the question was never received and McWilliams didn’t get his answer (the format of the event was such that if a question failed to reach the ISS the next person in line would proceed with their question).

“I think it’s one of the first questions that pops into your head when you think about talking with an astronaut,” said McWilliams. “It’s a question I needed to ask just to see what they said.”
Asked if he was bummed that his question went unanswered, McWilliams said no. He knew what Kimbrough would likely say, and he got to hear the answers to other questions.

“Maybe it’s a question I can ask next year,” he said.
Mac Sudduth, president of the Museum of Innovation and Science, which is known as miSci, said it was a pleasure to see the kids speaking with Kimbrough and making a memory that that they’ll carry with them the rest of their lives.
“We’re not trying to make everybody a scientist or engineer here, but we figure if they get involved in science and technology they’re going to be better citizens,” said Sudduth, noting especially Kimbrough’s comment about taking care of Earth and atmosphere. “What was most clear to him being in space is how much we have to protect the Earth.”

The process, from setting up the contact with NASA, upgrading miSci’s radio equipment to be able to communicate with the station, and finally making contact with the station, took about a year. MacMurray, the radio operator, said at the point at which the kids were speaking with Kimbrough, the ISS was at an 89 degree angle above Schenectady, with 90 degrees being directly above. And, he added, students only had a seven-minute window in which to ask their questions before the ISS orbited out of range.

“It was very exciting,” said MacMurray. “Just to see them light up that there’s a voice there that’s coming from outer space.”
During the seven-minute conversation with Kimbrough, MacMurray said the ISS traveled from just above Louisiana in a northeasterly direction, until it was almost directly above the city and soon thereafter out of range.

When Kimbrough’s voice cut out suddenly, and it was announced that the station had traveled out of range, the room erupted in applause.

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