‘One Heck Of A Long Distance Call!’ Students Speak With Orbiting Astronauts

Story by Mark Neuman
Photos by Scott Schaefer

Three astronauts, orbiting Earth in the International Space Station, turned on a camera, popped open some microphones, and spoke with several local high school students assembled Monday morning (Aug. 29) at the Museum of Flight at Boeing Field.

When the question and answer session began, the astronauts, floating inside the $100 billion dollar space station, which is long enough to fit snugly on an American football field, end zones included, were over the Pacific Ocean.

Twenty minutes later, when the audio-video feed concluded, they and their three Russian cosmonaut colleagues were above the Atlantic Ocean, after flying over Central America and the Eastern seaboard of the United States, approximately 240 statute miles above Earth.

Students submitted their questions weeks earlier. NASA contacted students whose questions were selected and invited them to ask their questions live from the Museum’s William M. Allen Theater. One interesting technological tidbit noticed at the event was the lag time between the students’ speaking into a microphone and the astronauts hearing the questions. Not surprising given the distance between the two.

Gina O’Kelley was one of about a half dozen Highline School District’s Aviation High School students who quizzed the astronauts.

“It was absolutely incredible,” Gina said, describing what talking directly to orbiting astronauts was like. “You’re talking to someone miles in space. That’s one heck of a long distance call! I’m still absorbing it all right now.”

Gina’s question:

“How has your perspective of Earth and life on Earth changed since you have been on the International Space Station?”

Japanese astronaut Satoshi Furukawa, a medical doctor, spoke:

“When I looked out of a window of the International Space Station, I was touched (at seeing) the thin blue layer of atmosphere that rings our Earth. I understood that the beautiful atmospheric layer protects us and Earth from (a) harsh environment in space. And I realize that we need to preserve our Mother planet Earth’s natural splendor.”

Aviation High School’s Alex Wencel asked:

“How does the crew from such diverse backgrounds cope with their differences in language and culture?”

American astronaut Ron Garan, on his second spaceflight, responded to Alex’s question:

“For us it’s that we have a common goal. When you have a common goal you can overcome anything, language difficulties, differences in culture.

We had 15 nations that came together to build this incredible, wonderful research facility that we presently call home. We did that with these different and diverse nations because we all share that common goal.”

Will Mueser, who is considering a future as an engineer or a pilot, asked:

“What are the roles of astronauts and pilots in a field that increasingly depends upon unmanned or remote-control missions?”

American astronaut Mike Fossum, whose official position on this crew is Flight Engineer 4, answered:

“The whole field and concept of remote control robotic kinds of missions is changing and it certainly is in the world of aviation in the last ten or fifteen years where Remotely Piloted Vehicles are taking on a bigger and bigger role.

Just outside this window behind us right now is a Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator, a very complicated and wonderful tool. Over the course of two days it’s changing out a power switch, a complicated little power control box. It’s very slow and tedious.

Ron (Garan) and I are both spacewalkers. We’ve done four space walks together and that task as a spacewalk for us is about 35 to 45 minutes.

The human in the loop can really understand, feel (the problem), make decisions and adjust very rapidly. Our ability to give the robots (the ability) to control that way is still in process.”

Surbhi Ghadia, a student at Aviation, asked the briefest question – seven words – and traveled further than anyone to be present at the Museum of Flight Monday.

She was in India when “my Dad called me to tell me I’d been selected to asked a question. I was really excited. This is really cool.”

Surbhi’s question:

“How often do experiments give unexpected results?”

Ron Garan:

“Unexpected results are usually the best results. That’s why we do the experiment in the first place. Because if you already knew the answer we wouldn’t be doing the experiments.

We’ve had some fluids experiments that basically are going to change our understanding of the way fluids react and we’ve had some other experiments where we discovered things that we didn’t know existed. So whenever we have these experiments that give us something a little different, it’s exciting for us up here and exciting for everybody on the ground.

It’s one of the joys of being up here in this very, very unique environment.”

Karan Singh, who also attends Aviation, asked a question regarding performing duties in space.

Afterwards Karan said “It was a really good experience. Not everybody can say they’ve been able to talk to an astronaut in space.

“It’s a life changing experience. There’s more than just what we see on Earth,” Karan said. “The sky is not the limit, which is our school’s motto.”

The International Space Station has been continuously occupied for over a decade.

Assuming clear skies, you may be able to see the station fly overhead. To find dates and times for your spot on Earth, go to:


For the Museum of Flight, see: www.museumofflight.org.

For more information on Aviation High School, see: www.aviationhs.org

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