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Astronaut above us gets quizzing from students

Matthew Daneman
Staff writer

(January 9, 2007) — HENRIETTA — If you have a question about outer space, surely it is best to ask a person already there, rather than someone on Earth.

So Angela Hanley stepped up to the microphone at the front of her Sherman Elementary classroom, looked down at her question printed on one side of a large index card, and proceeded to grill Sunita Williams about Pluto while the NASA astronaut whizzed by hundreds of miles overhead.

"That's sort of a bummer — we all learned about Pluto and (then) it lost its status as a planet," Williams said Monday, her voice clear as it traveled via ham radio from the International Space Station to the Rush-Henrietta Central School District classroom.

The Henrietta school applied more than three years ago to take part in NASA's Amateur Radio on the International Space Station program, which lets students talk to astronauts live. And a couple of weeks ago, math/science/technology resource teacher Andrea Catera got the call that the radio link was a "go."

The Rochester Amateur Radio Association, with help from Rochester Institute of Technology's ham radio student club, set up the link.

Eight Sherman Elementary fifth-graders each asked two questions, while two more sat with the ham radio operators, helping adjust the controls keeping radio antennas on the school's roof pointed at the space station as it soared past. At its closest point, the space station was 433 miles away.

Meanwhile in the school's cafeteria sat crowds of third-, fourth- and fifth-graders watching the question-and-answer session via the Internet. RIT students were on hand to help broadcast the session to schoolchildren around the globe.

Maya Duhart stepped up to the microphone: "What do you do if you get sick? Can you take a sick day? Over."

"It was fun," the 11-year-old said minutes later. "She's up there, so she knows what they're going through."

Williams, a former test pilot, fielded questions about everything from the food the astronauts eat on the space station to what it is like to launch into space.

After nine minutes of answering the fifth-graders' questions, the space station edged out of radio range, as the answer to Joe Adams' question about things going wrong on the 235-ton vessel faded into static.

The aim was to get the students excited about some aspect of their studies, from the science of spaceflight to the sociology of living on the space station, Catera said.

"Any part of that that interests them, that's awesome," she said.

Peter Fournia of Penfield, with the Rochester Amateur Radio Association, and fifth-graders Eric Dixon, 10, and Megan Burns, 10, try to contact the International Space Station Monday at Sherman school in Henrietta. (SHAWN DOWD staff photographer)

Peter Fournia dials in the International Space Station through a ham radio so students at Sherman Elementary School can talk to astronaut Sunita Williams. (SHAWN DOWD staff photographer)