Local students video chat with NASA astronauts on board the International Space Station

Imagine seeing three NASA astronauts floating in the International Space Station and asking them “What’s it like up there?” This morning, kids from grades K-12 in local schools and Boys and Girls Clubs had the opportunity to do just that.

On a giant projector screen in the Gallagher Center on Philadelphia University’s campus, students took part in a rare one-on-one discussion with the astronauts through a live video downlink.  

Twenty student ambassadors prepared questions to ask astronauts Joe Acaba, Don Pettit and Andre Kuipers, who are all on board the International Space Station.

One fifth-grade student, Kyair Dungee of Imani Education Circle Charter School in Germantown, asked the astronauts, “Can you take a shower in space and how can you keep the soap from floating away?”

They answered that they don’t take showers in space because of gravity. Dungee says that he doesn’t want to be an astronaut, but has hopes to keep his feet on the ground as a professional basketball player.

Other students asked questions such as, “What do you do to become an astronaut?” and “What does it smell like in space?” The astronauts answered that to become an astronaut, students should “study very hard” and that the smell in space can be compared to an “engine room or gymnasium.”

‘Once in a lifetime opportunity’

The event was a partnership between NASA and Destination Imagination (DI), a nonprofit that provides educational programs for students to learn and experience creativity, teamwork and problem solving.

Chuck Cadle, CEO of DI, said it was a “once in a lifetime opportunity” for the students. Britt Dyer, special project director for DI, says the group planned a brain teaser or challenge for the students to solve following the downlink.

“We provide them with a challenge that they have 10 to 15 weeks to solve,” said Dyer. “There’s no help from adults. They have to work in teams to come up with the solution. If they solve it, they can then move on to our regional and even global finals.”

She says the challenges can include topics in engineering, art, theater and community service.

“It’s incredibly empowering,” said Dyer, who is an alumni of the DI program. “It allows them to be themselves. The challenges are open-ended. It’s great to see how they interpret the challenge.”

Sparking an interest in innovation

D.R. Widder, executive director of innovation at Philadelphia University, says the school was fortunate to have been chosen as one of only six video downlinks nationwide by NASA’s Teaching From Space Program.

“We were able to use a Ku-Band downlink that we had,” said Widder. “It’s an older technology and everything went smoothly. I was really rooting for the ninetenth and twentieth students and hoped there would be time for their questions.”

He added that they did have a back-up satellite dish attached to a van outside as a “Plan B” Widder says he hopes the students will be inspired and that the event will “spark some of the students to invent something.”

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