LEWISTON — The first six tries to make ham radio contact Tuesday with the International Space Station fetched only static.
On the seventh try, astronaut Christopher Cassidy answered, “Yes.”
The audience of Lewiston-Auburn eighth-graders stirred with excitement. Standing on stage in the Lewiston Middle School auditorium, the first student was told to ask his question.
For as long as the space station was in radio contact range, students talked to Cassidy, an astronaut from York, Maine, as the station orbited the Earth at about 17,000 mph. Radio contact time Tuesday lasted long enough for students to ask 10 questions.
“What are the biggest struggles of living on the space station?” asked Alexander Cook.
“It's hard to keep up with the daily timeline, balancing that with the desire to look out the window and take pictures of our beautiful planet,” Cassidy answered.
Julia Marley wanted to know what Cassidy would like to see NASA accomplish soon, a manned mission to Mars or extensive zero-gravity experiments.
He said he'd like to see a manned mission to Mars developed. Scientists and astronauts could prepare “all the equipment you need to have to live on Mars so when the times comes, we're ready to go.”
Emily Roth asked what he considered the most beneficial space experiments.
There are two categories, Cassidy said. One is those that most benefit people now, including medical experiments having to do with bone density. “Exercise and diet are two big things.” Also experiments that explore the universe, he said.
Abshir Abulrar asked if all the electricity on the space station comes from its solar panels.
“Good question, Abshir,” Cassidy said. “Yes, every bit of electricity comes from our solar panels. We have eight of them.”
And so it went.
Other students asked the astronaut about his training, space experiments, challenges, and how one becomes an astronaut.
The real-time talk was arranged by NASA, Bates College Museum of Art Curator Anthony Shostak, and the Maine chapter of the American Radio Relay League.
Last year, the Bates art museum held a “Starstruck” exhibit of more than 100 photographs of space. That led to Shostak's brother-in-law, Dave Taylor, an amateur radio operator for ARRL, telling Shostak about NASA's call for radio operator proposals to talk to orbiting astronauts. After talking to Lewiston-Auburn teachers, they secured a scheduled ham radio chat time with NASA.
Students spent much of the past year preparing by visiting the Bates space exhibit, reading news of the space station on NASA's website and learning it has six astronauts on board from Russia, the United States and Canada.
Excitement from students was obvious Tuesday before, during and after the chat with the astronaut. The talk was preceded by a striking video shot by astronauts of what Earth looks like from the space station.
Cassidy talked to students about how training to go into space happens underwater, which has a strong similarity to the feeling in space.
The most challenging part of his job can be concentrating throughout the day, “giving 100 percent concentration to every task,” he said. The space station crew is “getting everything done that has been assigned to us and a little bit more. That makes us feel good.”
Asked what happens when there's an emergency on board, Cassidy said the astronauts have been fortunate, but a dental problem like a loose filling can be very painful in space.
To become an astronaut, he advised students to make good choices, work hard in school “and dream big.”
He thanked students for the talk. “Maybe after I land, I can come up and talk to you guys,” he said.
Students responded with applause, whistles and cheers.
The space talk "demonstrated to students that science has real-life applications with cool outcomes," said Carl Bucciantini, middle school technology integrator.