Sea Road School students chatted with NASA astronaut Michael Hopkins aboard the International Space Station on Thursday, Jan. 21. The screenshot shows students who asked the questions, an image of the astronaut, and some of those who helped make the link work. Ann Stockbridge courtesy photo

KENNEBUNK – How did NASA astronaut Michael Hopkins feel when, in space, he looked back and saw the earth for the first time?

“Overwhelmed,” he told students at Sea Road School students on Thursday.

It was a long-distance chat – a very long-distance chat – over the internet and amateur radio through a series of technical hops from the International Space Station to the school in Kennebunk.

Students were able to ask numerous questions about life on the International Space Station, about being an astronaut, the food, scientific experiments, and more.

Fifth-grader Jack McCarthy watched the livestream of a conversation between fellow students at Sea Road School and astronaut Michael Hopkins aboard the International Space Station on Thursday, Jan. 22. Among others watching from the school library were student Evelyn Kahn and STEM educator Ann Stockbridge. Jen Hass courtesy photo

It was a conversation the third, fourth and fifth grade students have been preparing for a long time, in their STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) classes, in physical education, where they practiced exercising like astronauts, by drawing starry night pictures, and in other ways.

It was an effort that spanned continents and space, and began a few years ago when Alex Mendelsohn and Tom Moyer of the Kennebunk-based New England Radio Discussion Society, approached Cory Steere, principal of Sea Road School, with the idea. The members knew that the ARISS (Amateur Radio on the International Space Station) program arranges encounters between astronauts in space and schools, and thought third- through fifth-grade students would be keen – and they were right.

“ARISS is a project designed for kids,” Mendelsohn said at the time. And so, the effort began.

STEM educator Ann Stockbridge led the charge at the school, with help from faculty and staff including Jamie Jensen, Sheila Wells and Emily Phillips.

It culminated Thursday, Jan. 21 at about 1:27 p.m., when a link was established between the school and Hopkins, aboard the space station. It was transmitted via the internet on a private link to an amateur radio ground station in Italy, where Claudio Ariotti, who uses the call sign 1K1SLD, talked to the space station on the VHF 2-meter FM band and transmitted the signal. The space station did the same, and Ariotti then transmitted the signal back to the school.

Some students who were among those asking questions were studying remotely at home. A few more, keeping social distancing in mind, were at various locations in the school. The encounter was broadcast online and is available at https://www.rsu21.net/livestream.

In all, 10 students asked questions. Many others at Sea Road School, along with students at Mildred L. Day School and Kennebunkport Consolidated School, watched a livestream of the event.

Hopkins, a colonel with the U.S. Space Force, was selected by NASA to be an astronaut in 2009 and is a flight engineer on the International Space Station.

He answered a flurry of questions during the voice-only encounter – video of Hopkins was unavailable.

He was asked about his favorite scientific experiments, and told the students the crew is growing lettuce and hopes to have some soon, because most food is of the dehydrated variety.

His family, the weather and fresh food are what he misses most, being away, he said, though he’s is able to talk to his wife and children daily by phone.

A student named Tyler asked what the most dangerous part of being in space.

“We’ll do space walks,” he said, “and then the most dangerous is getting here, and coming home.”

Oliver asked how long Hopkins trained to be an astronaut.

“I started when I was in school,” said Hopkins, “All you are doing now is preparing you.”

“What is your favorite part of being an astronaut,” another student asked.

“I get to talk to kids like you, and also getting to float,” Hopkins said.

The encounter lasted about 10 minutes, and there was a big cheer from the students who had asked the questions, linked together by Zoom, at the end.

The youngsters were impressed.

“I think space is really cool, and it would be fun to explore more of the universe, to study more of the stars and stuff,” said fifth-grade student Jack McCarthy.

“We’ve been doing a unit on space for our grade, and that’s been fun,” said Evelyn Kahn, who’s a fifth grader, though she confessed she’s not interested in becoming an astronaut.

Steere said the experience was exciting for Sea Road school students as well as others throughout the district.

“I’m hoping our students will be inspired to follow their dreams and understand the value of the hard work and dedication that is needed to make those dreams become a reality,” he said. “No dream is too big. Astronaut Mike Hopkins reiterated the importance of all content areas in school as well as continued learning and the importance of STEM.”

ARISS has been taking part in the space talks for 20 years and have facilitated 1,300 conversations.

Mendelsohn, of the New England Radio Discussion Society, was among those watching the event.

“I enjoyed it,” said Mendelsohn, “It worked out great, and the kids loved it.”

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