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May 1, 2009 12:45 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Hampton Bays middle school students make contact with astronaut

May 1, 2009 12:45 PM

Hampton Bays Middle School students had the chance to speak with Edward Michael Fincke, commander of the International Space Station, and ask him what it is like to be an astronaut while he passed by—or, more accurately, passed over—the school last week.

Ten members of the middle school’s Science and Audio Visual clubs made contact with Mr. Fincke last Wednesday, February 25, with the help of a ham radio while he was aboard International Space Station Expedition 18. Mr. Fincke is four months in to a six-month space mission.

The 10 students, assisted by members of the Peconic Amateur Radio Club, made contact with the International Space Station commander while he and his crew were in orbit some 270 miles over Hampton Bays, whizzing by at a speed of 17,000 mph.

Roberta Keis, the president of the Peconic Amateur Radio Club, said her organization had applied to participate in the Amateur Radio on the International Space Station (ARISS) program, which facilitate such events, nearly three years ago and was recently offered the opportunity to speak with astronauts. She said that her club, which loaned Hampton Bays the radio equipment, was scheduled to make contact with astronauts twice before but those transmissions were canceled by the National Aeronautics and Space Association.

Ms. Keis explained that a ham radio can be useful during natural disasters because it still works when other forms of communication, like cell phones and the internet, fail. She said that a successful transmission to space required the collaboration of her club, Hampton Bays students, NASA and ARISS. “This event takes a lot of people to be successful,” she said.

Ms. Keis noted that for a cool $40 million, anyone can join the astronauts in space.

The students participating in last week’s program were able to ask 15 of 20 prepared questions during the 10-minute transmission before losing the signal. Students Scott Harris, Shawn Bowen, Christen Bellucci, Madison Langsdorf, Daniella Greene, Alex Petersen, Sara Schabe, Nick Romagnoli, Katherine O’Gara and Travis Flynn asked the questions.

Hampton Bays Middle School Principal Lars Clemensen encouraged those in attendance to “sit back, relax, and watch history being made here in Hampton Bays,” prior to the start of the transmission. “I’d like to thank them for bringing us today’s fantastic opportunity,” he added.

At 8:56 a.m., the students made initial contact.

The transmission was broadcast to every classroom at the Hampton Bays elementary, middle and high schools and all 1,800 students in the district watched as their classmates spoke with Mr. Fincke while he was orbiting the Earth.

Scott had the first question and he asked Mr. Fincke how astronauts dispose of garbage in space. The commander explained that waste is released and burns up when reentering the Earth’s atmosphere.

“It’s a very clean way of disposing waste,” he said.

Christen then asked Mr. Fincke what it takes to be an astronaut.

“You have to not be afraid to try new things,” replied Mr. Fincke, who had previously spoken with groups from Australia, Italy and Japan from space. “We need to use our minds.”

He added that a background in math, science and foreign languages is also helpful.

Madison wanted to know if Mr. Fincke had trouble sleeping in zero gravity. “I love sleeping up here,” Mr. Fincke said. “We’re floating in air.”

Shawn then asked Mr. Fincke how long he would be on this particular mission. “My assignment up here is for six months,” Mr. Fincke said, adding that he has completed four months of the mission.

While he enjoys living in zero gravity, Mr. Fincke said he was eager to get back home to his family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Although many of the students admitted after the event that they were nervous speaking with a real astronaut, they all agreed that it was an experience that they will not soon forget.

“I never talked to an astronaut before,” Travis said, adding that he was “thrilled” to get the opportunity. “It’s really cool.”

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