It has been more than a year in the making, but finally, on May 7, students at Green Bank Elementary-Middle School made contact with the International Space Station and had a conversation with Astronaut Mark Vande Hei.
Last school year, students in the HAM radio club were learning how HAM radio was used by the astronauts to communicate with Earth. The club, which was formed with the help of Eight Rivers Amateur Radio Club, applied for the opportunity to contact the ISS.
GBEMS was one of 11 schools in the United States selected to do so.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the date of contact was postponed until it was possible for the students to be at school.
The day finally arrived, and Anne Smith’s science students gathered in the gymnasium for the event – joined by members of the Eight Rivers Amateur Radio Club and staff from Green Bank Observatory. The rest of the school was patched into the event through Teams and watched excitedly from their classrooms.
Students selected to ask questions of Vande Hei were socially distanced in a circle and rotated around two microphones in a choreographed round robin to ensure they wasted no time and were able to ask as many questions as possible.
The event was live stream-ed on Facebook and was accompanied by pre-recorded messages from the students, principal Julie Shiflet, Smith, GBO director Karen O’Neil, Senator Shelley Moore Capito, Senator Joe Man-chin, III and National Science Foundation director Sethuraman Panchanathan.
Everyone involved spoke of the magnitude of the day and how special it was for GBEMS to represent West Virginia as they made contact with the ISS.
A video featuring Vande Hei was also shown to introduce him to the group and all those watching online.
“Arriving at the Space Station, something I’ll never forget is looking over my left shoulder out the window in the Soyuz where it was either a view of the Earth or blackness of space, and then all of a sudden, I could see a solar array – getting chills even thinking about it right now,” he said.
Vande Hei said he broke the silence in that moment and said “Wow,” to which the Russian commander who was at his side commented with a shushing motion.
“Yeah, I was definitely a rookie,” Vande Hei said, laughing. “I was excited.”
He spoke about how the ISS contributes to the experiments by being a unique environment unlike any on Earth.
“The Space Station is very unique because on the Space Station, orbit is really a continuous free fall and, because of that, you can have some very unstable structures that might not be able to stay together if you’re on the ground,” he said. “They could stay together on the Space Station.
“Flames behave differently because combustion on the ground requires drawing in all these rich gases into the flame, because the hot combustion gases go up and away, but there’s no up and away on the Space Station,” he continued. “All directions are equal as far as that’s concerned, so that behaves differently.”
While it keeps him away from home and his family, Vande Hei said he enjoys working on the ISS and is surprised that he even considers it a home away from home.
“Some people have talked about, at some point in the expedition, feeling like it’s time to go home, but for me, there was always another space walk or another vehicle capture coming up,” he said.
Prior to reaching out to the ISS, GBO educator Sophie St. Georges introduced the members of the Eight River Amateur Radio Club who were in attendance to make sure the connection was strong. They were Marty Bloss, Galen Watts, Joe Brandt and Rudy Marrujo, while Ray Creager was in the “VIP” section at the GBO listening in on the call.
In addition to Eight Rivers, the event was made possible by the Amateur Radio on the International Space Station [ARISS], and NASA with support from the Pocahontas County Board of Education, The Snowshoe Foundation, Green Bank Observatory and Durbin Lions Club.
GBO public outreach manager Amanda White, who emceed the event, introduced GBEMS student Dylan who was selected to “make the call.”
“Dylan was selected to make this call because of the incredible amount of enthusiasm that he has shown throughout this entire experience,” she said. “We will have about ten minutes of contact time with the astronaut as the ISS travels from horizon to horizon and we will continue to ask questions until the signal disappears.”
Dylan stepped up to the microphone and began the call.
“November Alpha One Sierra Sierra, November Alpha One Sierra Sierra from November Eight Romeo Victor for a scheduled school contact,” he said.
After six tries and lots of static, the gymnasium was filled with Vande Hei’s voice.
“November Eight Romeo Victor, this is November Alpha One Sierra Sierra,” he said. “I hear you loud and clear.”
The conversation went as follows. Due to a request by ARISS, the students did not use their last names.
Dylan: “The Green Bank School is pleased to welcome Astronaut Vande Hei to speak with us today. Are you ready for student questions?”
Mark: “I am looking forward to student questions.”
Jade: “What made you decide to become an astronaut?”
Mark: “The combination of mental challenge, physical challenges, as well as the opportunity to serve all of humanity.”
Steven: “Is the ISS heated or is it always cold?”
Mark: “The ISS is actually very comfortable inside. It is controlled. The temperature is set much like the house, but this time the ground control team sets it for us, so we typically wear short sleeves and pants when we work.”
Griffin: “How often do you have to refill the oxygen tanks from Earth?”
Mark: “Griffin, that’s a great question. I am not 100 percent certain of that. I know that we’ve got a slow leak on the station right now and just a few days ago, we opened up a couple of air tanks just to make sure we had enough nitrogen inside the space station. We have an oxygen generation system so we’re able to convert some of our CO2 back into oxygen.”
Dylan: “Have you ever lost contact with the base? What are you supposed to do if that were to happen?”
Mark: “Hi Dylan. Actually very routinely, we have what we call a loss of signal or LOS, where we can’t talk to the ground control team. A lot of times it’s only for 20 seconds, but sometimes it’s 10 minutes. And if it happens unexpectedly, we do have a procedure to follow to try to reestablish communications.”
Florian: “Asking for Aiden. What can you see from the space station that you can’t see from Earth?”
Mark: “Some things I’ve seen from the space station that I’ve never seen from the Earth are the thinness of the atmosphere, from outer space, it looks like the Earth has just a very delicate thin layer of atmosphere that we sometimes take for granted. Also, I’ve seen meteorites burn up in the atmosphere. I’ve seen aurora borealis from space, and it looks somewhat like curtains. Very different looking from the way it looks from the ground.”
Kaden: “If you have any down time, what do you do?”
Mark: “Kaden, great question. We like to have meals together once a week along with the entire crew and with our Russian counterparts, as well. We’ve been having a movie night once a week. I like to read for a little bit every night to relax, so I can actually sleep. And taking pictures is something we can’t get enough of.”
Ella: “What are you allowed to bring to the ISS and what did you choose to bring?”
Mark: “We’re allowed to bring things that aren’t sharp or combustible, much like going on an airplane. We do have limits on the amount or size. I could bring half a kilogram on the spacecraft with me, and I’m not sure how to describe it, a third of a carry on suitcase for personal items that I could bring up to the space station.
“My wedding ring is one thing I definitely brought. But otherwise, I only brought things that my wife wanted me to take to space so she could give them as presents to other people.”
Shayla: “How do you solve problems with each other if you get into arguments?”
Mark: “That’s a very, very important thing on the space station. The most important thing is to talk about it. If we are angered with another crewmember, we’ve just got to pull them aside privately and talk about it, and almost always, we’re able to resolve it successfully. We actually get a lot of training on that.”
Cadence: “Does the food go to the top of your mouth when you eat because of micro gravity and does it feel different to eat and drink in space?”
Mark: “Cadence, that’s a fantastic question. I’ve never thought about that. No, it doesn’t. I think my tongue makes contact with the food quickly enough that I don’t notice it going to the top of my mouth. However, I can tell you when I open a food package, for example, rice, if I don’t put something like olive oil or garlic paste in there, the rice goes flying all over the place.”
Charlie: “Asking for Amber. What do you do about trash?”
Mark: “Trash, we have to make sure we collect it, because, just like that rice, it would go floating all over the place. Once it’s collected, we have to wait for a spacecraft to put it into to get rid of it. We currently have a Cignus spacecraft docked to the space station. We are loading that up with as much trash as possible and then when it departs, it will burn up in the atmosphere.”
Makenzie: “Is it possible for an animal to be pregnant in space?”
Mark: “Makenzie, great question. I suspect it’s possible, but I’m just making a guess. I really do not know what issues there might be with pregnancies in space.”
Willie: “Asking for Garret. Has there ever been a critical failure? What protocols or drills do you have in case one happens?”
Mark: “So there are three emergencies, we call them. A rapid depressurization, an ammonia release into the space station or a fire. I know we’ve had false alarms for those things. I’m not 100 percent certain that we’ve had any for real, although we do have a slow depress because of the leak I mentioned earlier, and we train a lot for all three of those contingencies. I know on previous space stations, on the Mir Space Station for example, they did have a fire.”
Taylor: “What are the emotional challenges in space?”
Mark: “Taylor, the biggest emotional challenge I have in space is being kind to myself. When I make a mistake, I beat myself up about it and get grumpy. I just have to forgive myself and move on to the next thing so I can pay one hundred percent attention to the next thing I’ve got to work on.”
Olivia: “Asking for Charlie. How is your sleep or work schedule different in space than it would be on Earth?”
Mark: “The sleep schedule is kind of the same, but it’s actually a longer work schedule. I like to get about eight hours of sleep at night and they schedule that for me on the space station. The work schedule goes from about 7:30 in the morning until 7:30 at night.”
Alison: “Asking for Trenton. How do you get news from Earth? Were you worried about COVID affecting your support system on the ground?”
Mark: “We get news from Earth from a support team. We have a behavioral health and performance group that we tell what podcasts we like to listen to, what magazines we like to read and they actually upload those to the computers on the space station. I’m happy to say that most of my family has been immunized, but that continues to be a concern, but it’s lessening as time goes on, and more and more people get immunized.”
Julie Shiflet: “The Green Bank Elementary-Middle School would like to thank Astronaut Mark Vande Hei, call sign KG5GNP on the count of three.”
Mark: “That got me choked up. Thanks for that. Really great questions today. It was a pleasure talking with you. Have a wonderful day.”
Julie Shiflet: “N8RV, over and out.”
A video of the event is available on the Green Bank Observatory and Green Bank Elementary-Middle School Facebook pages for those who could not tune in live and want to experience the once in a lifetime event.