| Portsmouth Herald
KENNEBUNK, Maine – Children are often told to “shoot for the stars” when it comes to their pursuits. In Regional School Unit 21, the students took that phrase literally Thursday.
Ten students from Sea Road School spoke with astronaut Michael Hopkins aboard the International Space Station as it passed over Italy, 200 miles above the earth, at 25,000 mph.
The group of third, fourth and fifth graders asked Hopkins questions about life among the stars, firing them off one after another and getting clear responses as the clock ticked down on the roughly 10-minute time-frame in which they were expected to have a clear signal.
“Do you think we are the only intelligent life forms in the universe?” asked Jack, a fifth-grader.
“That’s a tough one, Jack,” Hopkins replied. “I think it’s hard to believe, given how many universes there are out there, so I would be surprised if we are.”
“What does a day in an astronaut’s life look like?” asked a student named Mia.
“No day is the same,” Hopkins said. “Some days we’re doing maintenance. Some days we’re going out on a space walk.”
“How do you conquer your fear in space?” asked a student named Torben.
“I rely on my crew mates, and I rely on my faith,” Hopkins replied. “Between those two, I think you can conquer just about anything.”
The students communicated with Hopkins through the Google Meets platform, with students from Kennebunkport Consolidated School and the Mildred L. Day Elementary School watching as the conversation streamed live online. Given the COVID-19 pandemic and the school district’s current hybrid approach to instruction, some of the students participated in classrooms and others did so from home.
The project was a collaboration between RSU 21 and the Amateur Radio in the International Space Station program, also known as ARISS. With help from RSU 21 IT Director Jamie Jensen, ARISS Technical Mentor Fred Kemmerer and ARISS USA Moderator and Director of Operations John Kludt, the youngsters were able to speak with Hopkins through an amateur radio ground station in Casale Monfererrato, Italy.
The experience itself may have only lasted 10 minutes, but the preparation for it took a year and a half. In 2019, Ann Stockbridge, now a teacher at Kennebunk High School but then the STEM Coordinator at Sea Road School, worked with local ham radio operators Tom Moyer and Alex Mendelsohn, of the New England Radio Discussion Society, to plan the event. Sheila Wells, the school district’s STEM coordinator, and Emily Phillips, a fellow STEM educator, joined the project, as well. (STEM stands for Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.)
With support from Sea Road School Principal Cory Steere, Stockbridge submitted a formal proposal for the ISS contact to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which approved it.
“They don’t take many of them,” Stockbridge said of NASA during an interview on Thursday morning. “We were very fortunate to get picked.”
In a press release on Thursday, Steere called the afternoon’s events “truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
“I’m hoping our students will be inspired to follow their dreams and understand the value of the hard work and dedication that is needed to make those dreams become a reality,” Steere said.
Hopkins spoke of that hard work and dedication during his Q&A with the students, particularly when one of them, Oliver, asked him about his training to become an astronaut.
“You never stop training to be an astronaut,” Hopkins told the students. “In fact, I started back when I was in school, like you guys … all of the things you’re doing now, all the studying that you’re doing now, will help and prepare you for the time when you might get to be an astronaut. So I’ve been doing it quite a while.”
In all, the students asked Hopkins 20 questions, and Hopkins answered every one. He said he talks to his family every day, using his computer and chatting with them on their cell phones. He said he misses his family, but also the weather and fresh food, given how packaged and dehydrated his meals and snacks are. He told one student that magnets function the same in space as on Earth, but that other objects, such as water, do act differently.
Space walks are the most dangerous part of being an astronaut, Hopkins told one student, but traveling to the ISS and back home to Earth is dangerous, too, he added. He explained to another student that muscles and bones get weaker in space, and fluids shift in the body, so daily exercise is important.
Hopkins also explained that stars do not look closer in space, but they do appear brighter, for they are not being seen through the Earth’s atmosphere.
One student, Mia, asked Hopkins what it was like to see the whole Earth for the first time.
“I felt a little bit overwhelmed,” he replied. “It was hard to believe that I was actually in space and getting to see the earth from that vantage point. Overwhelmed is the best way to describe it.”
Another student, Rory, asked Hopkins if he had seen “any super rare and awesome things” in space. Hopkins said he had: the Earth itself.
“It’s incredible,” he said. “Sometimes you have to go away from something to realize how special it is.”
Jack – the student who asked Hopkins whether he believed in intelligent life in space – just might treat himself to that view of the Earth someday.
“I think space is really cool,” he said in a press release from the district. “It would be fun to explore more of the universe, to study more of the stars and stuff.”