Astronauts aboard the International Space Station dazzled students at Monta Loma Elementary last week, performing one-finger push-ups, suspending globes of fluid mid-air and floating effortlessly in a tight cabin about 250 miles above the Earth's surface.
Witnessing gravity-defying feats are just some of the ways students at the school got to interact with NASA astronaut Scott Tingle and Japanese astronaut Norishige Kanai in a live video feed March 2 between the space station and Monta Loma's multipurpose room, where students got a chance to ask rapid-fire questions about what it's like to live on a satellite hurtling around Earth at 17,500 mph.
Astronaut Norishige Kanai. Courtesy of NASA
Astronaut Scott Tingle Courtesy of Robert Markowitz/NASA
Kanai told students that being able to fly is a useful trait to have, but it can also betray you.
"As you can see, we can fly like superheroes - that's very convenient and it's very easy," he said. "But sometimes we lose balance and we have to stabilize ourselves holding something, so it's not so cool, and it's not easy."
Sure there are important experiments going on aboard the space station, but how do you know when it's time to go to sleep, asked Nate, a first-grader. Kanai said he and the rest of the crew keep a close watch on a clock - set to Greenwich Mean Time - in order to follow a consistent schedule, but circadian rhythms serve as an innate clock that helps astronauts know when it's time to turn in for the day.
And what's it like to eat and drink in a zero-gravity environment, asked fifth-grade student Taili. Students got a kick out of the answer when Tingle pulled out a plastic package and squeezed out a dark, undulating blob of fluid, which floated a few inches in front of his face before he snatched it up with his mouth. He said surface tension helps keep the fluid together in space, but you still have to be careful not to make a mess.
Tingle and Kanai kept up with the questions - with a slight delay as the video feed reached low Earth orbit - answering everything from whether astronauts can grow food in space to whether it's possible to see the Earth spinning from the International Space Station.
Kanai said the station is whizzing around the planet at a rate of about 90 minutes per revolution, which is too fast for them to see the Earth spinning with the naked eye. But the denizens of the space station can observe that the Earth is spinning based on which portions of the planet are lit by the sun.
"Let's say we fly over California during the daytime, and the next time we fly over California it may be nighttime," he said. "Then we can know, 'Ah, Earth is definitely spinning.'"
Heading the effort to bring the Q&A to Monta Loma was fourth-grade teacher Sean Dechter, who was able to get a leg up on the application process through a parent at the school who works for NASA. He said he couldn't have asked for a better event, which had no technical glitches and a polite and cooperative crowd of students. He said he hopes it inspired students to either become astronauts or consider careers in science and engineering fields.
"I think the general idea of students talking to astronauts while they're in space is pretty amazing," he said.
While the presentation was out of this world, NASA Ames Director Eugene Tu told Monta Loma students that research and experiments for space flight happen virtually next door at Ames Research Center at Moffett Field. He encouraged the kids to nag their parents and teachers for a field trip to come by and visit so they can see firsthand the science research that goes into planning space missions.
The event was well-attended by local elected officials, including City Council and school board members as well as Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, who described the International Space Station as an important success story where nations all over the world work together toward a common goal. She said the diverse group of students at Monta Loma represent their own version of the International Space Station right at home.
Monta Loma Principal Gloria Higgins said Eshoo's comments really hit home. The school not only touts ethnic and economic diversity among families, but also career backgrounds, with a large contingent of families from high-tech companies and members of the military in the school's community.
"We have families from all over the world, and the International Space Station is just a symbol of that," she said. "And I know we had some teachers who got a little teary eyed when they heard that."