Students Talk With Station Astronauts
People watch astronauts on a projector screen
Chicago students saw a live view of Earth from space during a video downlink in January with astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

Image to right: Chicago students watched Expedition 14 astronauts Suni Williams and Mike Lopez-Alegria on a screen in the auditorium at Adler Planetarium. Students interacted with the astronauts during a downlink from the space station. Credit: NASA

In response to a student's question about what it is like to see Earth from space, Expedition 14 commander Mike Lopez-Alegria moved the video camera to a window looking out at Earth.

While students gazed at Earth, flight engineer Suni Williams invited them to enjoy the "amazing and spectacular" view of the planet.

Williams talked about viewing Earth from space, describing her first spacewalk as a member of the STS-116 shuttle mission in December 2006. As a member of Expedition 14 crew, Williams completed three spacewalks, bringing her total number of spacewalks to four and setting the record for the most spacewalks ever by a woman.

"When you're on a spacewalk, it's just you out there in your space suit, so you get a nice 360-degree view of the whole Earth and the universe," Williams described. "It's really spectacular."

She said one of the astronauts' favorite activities is taking pictures of Earth. "In our free time that's sort of what we like to do. We've got lots of photography equipment up here, and we love to look out the window and take pictures of our beautiful Earth."

The downlink took place at the Adler Planetarium & Astronomy Museum in Chicago. The astronauts interacted via satellite video with middle school students from Columbia Explorers Academy, the first pre-existing school in the nation to be formally named in honor of the crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia.

The downlink was part of a larger effort to take current science topics and science speakers to the Hispanic students and teachers in the Chicago Public Schools system. The event was tied to Lopez-Alegria, who was born in Madrid, Spain, and grew up in Mission Viejo, Calif. He speaks fluent Spanish and has spoken with students in Spanish during other events.

Columbia students seemed most interested in what astronauts eat in space and how living in space affects their bodies.

Williams said their current diet is a mix of Russian and U.S. foods and usually includes meat. As Williams spoke, Lopez-Alegria showed some of the foods, including cans of meat and vegetables, a package of tuna noodle casserole, and bite-size loaves of bread.

A hand holds a small, brown loaf of bread
"Bread is a little bit of a problem up here because we have lots of crumbs, and things like that will just float around, sort of like Mike was just showing right there. Things float," Williams said.

Image to left: Astronauts eat bite-size loaves of bread, like the ones pictured here, on the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

"So we want to avoid the crumbs, so to do that we have these little loaves of bread which are a lot of fun to eat," she said, as Lopez-Alegria tossed a small loaf into the air for her to catch with her mouth.

"It's always fun to throw your food around up here, because it really doesn't fall -- you just catch it," Williams said.

Students were curious about whether the astronauts miss any foods from Earth. Williams answered, "every now and then."

"I think one of the biggest things I miss is not being able to dip [a cookie] in a cup of milk," Williams said. "You sort of just have to take a bite of a cookie, and then drink the milk and squish it all around in your mouth. That's sort of a bummer. It's not really like dunking your cookie in milk."

Students asked what the station is doing now to prepare for future missions to the moon, Mars and beyond. Lopez-Alegria said station astronauts are subjects in several human life experiments aimed at giving NASA scientists more data about how the body reacts to longer periods in microgravity. "That's going to be very important, especially to Mars, because it’s going to take a long time to get there and a long time to get back," Lopez-Alegria said.

Related Resources
+ International Space Station

+ Michael Lopez-Alegria Biography

+ Sunita Williams Biography

+ NASA Education Web site
Lopez-Alegria ended the 20-minute downlink by encouraging students to pursue their dreams.

"Neither of us thought that we were going to be astronauts when we were kids, and if you don't want to be an astronaut that's quite all right," he said. "There are plenty of needs for other professions in this world. We just want you to try to work as hard as you can, hang on to your dreams, keep your head down and color!"

NASA is committed to building strategic partnerships and linkages between science, technology, engineering and mathematics formal and informal educators. Through hands-on, interactive educational activities, NASA is engaging students, educators, families, the public and all agency stakeholders to increase Americans' science and technology literacy. NASA in-flight education downlinks are coordinated by the Teaching From Space Project.

Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services