What better way to start class than with some show-and-tell?
When the Space Shuttle Endeavour reached orbit on the STS-118 mission, with the first Educator Astronaut, NASA announced, "For Barbara Morgan and her crewmates, class is in session!"
It was a few days later that students arrived for that class, thanks to a live videochat between astronauts aboard the International Space Station and a gathering of students at the Discovery Center of Idaho in Boise.
During the downlink, 18 students had the opportunity to ask questions of mission specialist and Educator Astronaut Barbara R. Morgan, fellow STS-118 crewmembers Alvin Drew and Dave Williams, and space station Expedition 15 crewmember Clayton Anderson.
That Morgan is no stranger to capturing students' attention was obvious during the downlink. The astronauts not only answered questions, but also gave demonstrations to bring their answers to life for the audience.
The demonstrations combined information with a sense of humor. When asked about exercising on the space station, for example, Anderson showed the students how he uses the station's "exercise bike." Morgan then jokingly showed off some microgravity weight-lifting, simultaneously picking up Williams and Drew. Laughter from the ground could frequently be heard over the audio link from Boise.
The audience for the downlink was far larger than just the students who were gathered at the Discovery Center. Because the downlink was broadcast on NASA TV and webcast online, students and teachers around the world were able to watch the event.
The location where the downlink took place had a special significance for Morgan, who taught for more than two decades in Idaho at McCall-Donnelly Elementary School before becoming an astronaut in 1998. An exchange early in the downlink reflected the course her career has taken: After Morgan told the students, "Welcome aboard the International Space Station," a chorus of voices responded "Hello from Idaho!"
The Discovery Center of Idaho is an interactive science center that offers exhibits and education programs designed to inspire interest in science, mathematics and technology. Hands-on activities allow visitors to learn while having fun.
Downlinks such as this one are one way NASA supports its goal of attracting and retaining students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines.
Questions during the downlink covered a wide range, from how quickly a baseball could be thrown in space to what it is like when an astronaut first feels weightless to what the stars look like from orbit.
Janine Boire, executive director of the Discovery Center, said the students who asked the questions were a diverse group from all over the state. One family, she said, came from eight hours away for the downlink.
Boire said she was impressed with the students who participated in the event. "The 'intentness' with which the students listened to the astronauts' answers was remarkable," she said. "They were so intent in listening to the answer for the previous question that nothing else seemed to matter.
"Directly after the downlink, there was an air of euphoria and not a dry eye in the room, including the special guests, U.S. senator Mike Crapo, U.S. representative Bill Sali, and First Lady of Idaho Lori Otter, mayor of Boise Dave Beiter and several hundred other special guests, including the teachers and families of the students," she said.
The students who had the opportunity to ask questions of the astronauts said it was amazing. "I feel like I can do anything," one said. "This was the most incredible thing I've ever done -- yet," said another.
If another student has her way, she may be on the other end of a downlink like this someday: "I am SO ready to go into space," she said.
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David Hitt/NASA Educational Technology Services