Sunday, August 29, 2010

Zero gravity chinwag

Yesterday, Marcus spoke to an astronaut! He and nine schoolmates had the opportunity to talk to Colonel Doug Wheelock (above) on board the International Space Station, in orbit 350km above the Earth.

About 12 months ago South Hobart Primary applied through some kind of NASA/international amateur radio initiative - there was a lot of paperwork and negotiations. I think all the kids in the school wrote a question to ask and ten were selected. Marcus's question was "Which countries are involved in the ISS and where are the astronauts from?" Other questions included "How long does it take your mind to get used to zero gravity?" and "Is it frightening doing a spacewalk, and how many have you done?"

We crowded into Marcus's classroom with about 30 other parents, kids, some people from the local paper. One of the dads named Justin is an amateur radio aficionado, and he was running the show at our end. Up on the Smartboard he had a graphic showing the Earth's surface, the areas in night and day, and the current location of the ISS, indicated by an oval on the Earth about the size of South Australia. At 4.15 it was over Hawaii - by the time of our scheduled connection at 4.43 it was over the US midwest. The relay station that was contacting the ISS for us was Goddard Space Centre, near Washington DC. From there the link was coming via a radio operator in Kingston, South Australia. We listened to a lot of chit chat about the weather and so on while waiting for our astronaut.

The kids lined up and one by one Justin had them come to the mike, say their question clearly, then say "over". Colonel Doug gave long and detailed answers to the questions, and said to each kid "that's a great question!" (Marcus afterwards said "he should have varied what he said to each of us a bit, so it sounded more like he really meant it")

Listening to him addressing Marcus, I was just thrilled. He mentioned an astronaut from Australia, Andy Thomas, and then said "Maybe one day Marcus you will be an astronaut, and you'll be up here where I am now". Andy Thomas had to become a US citizen to get up there, though.

For the record, the ISS is a collaboration between the Space Agencies of Europe, USA, Japan,and Canada. The astronauts there now are from Russia and the USA, but previously there have been Canadian, Japanese, German, French and Belgium astronauts. Colonel Doug said yes, it is frightening to be out in space on a spacewalk, but you have a job to do out there and that takes your mind off it. He's done six of them. He also said the body gets used to zero gravity before the mind does, but that the transition is much easier than than going back the other way. After six months in space, once back on earth your feet and your back find they are unused to carrying such a load and can take three months to adjust.

Marcus was buzzing afterwards for hours. He had been anticipating the radio link for days and it lived up to his hopes. Unfortunately by the time Colonel Doug had given his extensive answers to seven questions, the ISS had moved out over the Atlantic, heading down towards Portugal, and reception started breaking up. The last three questions were answered by the man at Goddard. Then we had an extended farewell session where everyone thanked everyone on behalf of everyone they could think of plus a few others. It sounded a lot like when you are trying to get off the phone after a call to your deaf-ish grandma.


Luke said...

awesome, just awesome. That would have been a highlight of my life to chat to an astronaut and I'm 26, I can't imagine how it must have felt for Marcus

chris.dadness said...

Hi Luke. Yes, it's wonderful that the school were able to organise it. Marcus felt pretty bad for the kids that didn't get to ask their questions while the link was up.

I had heard about the ISS but never thought about it all that much. It's pretty amazing that humans are spending six months each up there isn't it?