Students entered the Charlotte Central School library in a sort of quiet roil on Monday. Emotions were simmering, but it was a controlled and well-behaved excitement, amazing considering that these fourth, fifth and sixth-graders were about to talk to an astronaut.
Maybe they were so well-behaved because this is old hat for these students. Many of them had a conversation with two astronauts last year, but perhaps they were just well behaved.
In a live video conference from Houston, Texas, the students interviewed Ricky Arnold, a NASA Educator Astronaut who returned from space this fall after completing a six-month mission on the International Space Station (ISS).
Last year, Charlotte Central School students had a shorter conversation with astronauts Drew Feustel and Scott Tingle, who were on the International Space Station at the time.
This year, the 120 students came with specific questions about some of the 300 experiments that Arnold and other astronauts conducted on the space station, said the school’s digital learning leader Allan Miller, who is the Tech Integrationist and NASA Solar System Ambassador on this project.
Miller has been providing tech support for sixth grade teacher Tasha Grey, whose students will produce 20-25 videos about research projects they are studying. The videos will be shown at a Family Night Film Festival in early June at Charlotte Central School.
Arnold said that he’d spent 197 days on the space shuttle starting in March 2018. He said that he had helped build this space station on an earlier mission. This time he went to live there with a crew of six.
Hannah, one of the students, asked, “What has been one of your most exciting experiences as an astronaut?”
Arnold said that riding in a rocket is “kind of weird,” thinking the night before that he was going to leave earth. He singled out the experience of doing space walks. Over the course of his missions, he’s done five space walks for a total of more than 30 hours.
“Just to experience what it’s like to be like a little satellite, floating along the ISS with the earth passing below your feet,” he said, “it’s a pretty humbling experience.”
Charlotte Central student Gabe asked about how eating and digestion are different in microgravity. Arnold told him he thinks that digestion is different because on earth gravity helps pull food down through your body.
“So, I think the digestive system probably works a little more slowly in space,” he said.
Rowan wanted to know, “How is working in space similar and different from being a teacher?”
This was a particularly appropriate question since Arnold was a teacher when he was picked to join NASA for astronaut training.
After the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986, when teacher Christa McAuliffe was killed, there hasn’t been a Teacher in Space program, said Miller after the video conference.
“Well, you see how busy your teachers are. They’ve got to do about a million things at once and pay attention to however many people they’ve got in the class,” Arnold said. “And they’ve got emails coming in and administrators bugging them. All these things they’ve got to take care of in the course of a day or even an hour, so the ISS is a bit like that. You’ve got a lot going on. You’ve got a lot of demands on your attention.”
Veronica asked, “Can you feel the deceleration when you re-enter Earth’s atmosphere?”
“Oh yeah, it’s a wild ride!” Arnold answered. “Not only can you see the flames and feel the explosions as things fall off the outside of the Soyuz (the Russian space craft) as you’re coming back, when the parachute deploys … you get jerked up and you’re spinning around. Then there’s another explosion to equalize the cabin pressure on the inside to equalize it with the outside air pressure.”
He said that when you get closer to the earth, the seats spring forward.
“And then there’s this series of more explosions where the soft-landing rockets fire,” Arnold said. “And then, you hit the earth like a thud.”
He compared the experience to a series of explosions followed by a car crash.
Ava asked the last question: “What is your best memory so far of your time in space?”
Arnold said that his best memories were from times he spent in the space station’s “Cupola,” the observation module with seven windows for experiments and watching Earth.
He reminisced about one night when they were flying over Africa.
“You could see all these little fires and then in the distance you could see the aurora over the Antarctic,” Arnold said. “I think those shared memories of looking back at Earth are the fondest memories I have.”
Arnold concluded by telling the students how important it is to try new experiences in life.
“There are things you’re going to do in life. The only way you’re going to find out if you can do them is by trying,” he said. “You will find that you have gifts and abilities that you did not realize that you have – if you allow yourself to be challenged.”