Catholic school students jump at chance to talk to astronaut in space

Sophie Gloriod, a seventh-grader at Little Flower School in Richmond Heights, certainly could be called a space cadet.

Listening to every word that was spoken via ham radio from some 240 miles above the earth, Sophie was no daydreamer but instead fit the other definition of the phrase — an enthusiast for space travel, typically a young person.

Sophie was among eight students from four Catholic schools who asked questions of astronaut Kjell Lindgren at Ste. Genevieve du Bois School in Warson Woods Nov. 12 as part of the Amateur Radio on the International Space Station (ARISS) Program. A medical doctor, Lindgren is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy. As a flight surgeon, he supported space station training and operations and was selected in 2009 as one of 14 members of the 20th NASA astronaut class. He is assigned to Expedition 44/55 as a flight engineer and has been on the space station since June.

Sophie was excited following the nine-minute conversation with the the astronaut, hooked up with the help of ham radio enthusiasts at Ste. Genevieve Parish and NASA. The questions were intended to help students learn more about life in space, how STEM (Science, Education, Engineering and Math) education has prepared astronauts for their experience and practical tips for students in pursuing a career in space-related fields.

One of Sophie's questions was whether infections spread at the same rate in space as on earth. She was surprised to learn that, though more study is needed on how germs spread in space, apparently there's not much of a difference. She also asked how long it took for Lindgren to get used to being in space. "I didn't realize it would take six weeks," Sophie said about his answer.

Another Little Flower student, eighth-grader Grace Dolan, said that just listening to an astronaut in space made the experience worthwhile for her. She also didn't expect the answer she received to her question about whether a lack of gravity affects his dreams — half are normal and the other half are different.

Grace is interested in the medical field, so she was interested in how people survive in space. Sophie also noted that the experience showed her the importance of math and science.

The 325 or so students along with staff and guests from Ste. Genevieve, Little Flower, St. Mary Magdalen in Brentwood and Our Lady of the Pillar in Creve Coeur filled the gym and remained quiet while the amateur radio operators made contact with the help of an antenna placed on the roof of the school.

Science teachers from each school have been using NASA program information in their classes, including presentations and activities on radio, satellites, weather and the space station. Anthony Van Gessel, principal of Ste. Genevieve School, spoke while the students were waiting for the contact, explaining that ARISS, a joint venture by NASA and two amateur radio groups, is active in nine countries. The space station, Van Gessel explained, is in its 15th year, with more than 200 astronauts from 15 countries having occupied it.

Msgr. Daniel E. Mosley, pastor of Ste. Genevieve du Bois, and Kurt Nelson, superintendent of Catholic education for the archdiocese, tied the experience to faith. Nelson noted that "you're part of a big tradition of the Catholic Church and Catholic education," he said, "and you can take your faith into it as you study these fields."

The international crew of six people live and work while traveling at a speed of five miles per second, orbiting Earth every 90 minutes at a speed of 17,400 miles per hour. The radio operators had a limited "footprint" in which to contact the station, tracking it across the sky. The conversation was beamed out on a different frequency so other ham radio operators could listen. Parishioner Tom Dougherty served as coordinator with help from Brian Grider, George Schindler, Paul Doran and others.

Ste. Genevieve School was one of only 12 nationwide and the only school in Missouri to take part in a conversation with an astronaut after a rigorous application process that began last fall and involved an evaluation of its educational and radio plans. NASA conducts one school contact a month in the various countries involved in the space station.

Van Gessel stated earlier in a news release that the program complements STEM education at the school "and brings to life many of the topics we study." 

Space station

The International Space Station is considered a laboratory enabling research in life and physical sciences, with the international partnership that built and maintains it an example of what humanity can accomplish when people work together in peace. Fifteen countries collaborate on it.

Crew members spend about 35 hours each week conducting research in many disciplines to advance scientific knowledge in Earth, space, physical, and biological sciences for the benefit of people living on our home planet. The station facilitates the development of U.S. commercial cargo and commercial crew space transportation capabilities.

More than an acre of solar arrays provide power to the station, and also make it the next brightest object in the night sky after the moon.

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly is halfway through his one-year mission, setting the U.S. records for both cumulative and continuous days in space.

The connection of schoolchildren and astronauts is a joint venture of NASA, the American Radio Relay League and the Radio Amateur Satellite Corporation. Amateur, or ham radio, is a service and hobby in which federally licensed participants operate communications equipment. More than 700,000 licensed amateurs and nearly 2,300 ARRL-affiliated amateur radio clubs are active in the United States.

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