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One Last Time -- Please Call Atlantis for a Voice Check
Space shuttle landing at night

Space shuttle Atlantis lands for the final time at NASA's Kennedy Space Center on July 21, 2011. Image Credit: NASA

"Houston: Atlantis, ISS, this is Houston. Are you ready for the event on space-to-ground-one?
Walheim: We are ready for the event.
Houston: Atlantis, ISS. This is Houston ACR. Please stand by for the NASA Summer of Innovation questions for students."

With those words, the last education space shuttle downlink began.

NASA education downlinks are the ultimate "ask-the-experts" experience. Over the years, thousands of students have talked with astronauts on board the space shuttle and learned about living and working in space. The shuttle downlink experience came to an end with the final flight of space shuttle Atlantis. On July 17, 2011, STS-135 astronauts Doug Hurley and Rex Walheim answered the last set of questions from students during a NASA education space shuttle downlink.

Students asked how it felt to be on the last shuttle launch, if spacesuits are itchy, how air is restored to the airlocks during spacewalks and how many pieces of space trash are out there. They wanted to know about future NASA missions and how it felt to blast off from Earth. They also asked questions about whether the astronauts could send text messages or emails, watch TV, or listen to music in space. Students were interested in microgravity, sleeping in space and who picked the astronauts for the missions.

Mission Specialist Rex Walheim, with Pilot Doug Hurley at his left, holds a microphone and space food packet

Atlantis Mission Specialist Rex Walheim and Pilot Doug Hurley show space food while answering a question from a student. Image Credit: NASA

And, of course, they asked about space food. Hurley and Walheim just happened to have their pockets stuffed with food items, and they showed the students packets of scrambled eggs, spaghetti and candy-covered chocolate. They also showed pouches with strawberry drink and vanilla pudding.

After 17 minutes and 41 seconds, the session ended, and mission control signed off and returned to operational audio communications.

"Houston: Atlantis, ISS. This is Houston ACR. Thank you. That concludes the event.
Hurley: Thanks a lot.
Houston: Thank you, Atlantis, ISS, and NASA Summer of Innovation students. Atlantis, ISS, we are now resuming operational audio communications."

Education specialists in the Teaching From Space Office located at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, worked with the astronauts to facilitate the space shuttle education downlinks. Through the years, questions that were asked during these live events resulted from competitions, drawings, essay contests, social media and many other types of creative methods that the participating schools or educational institutions could think of. Educators, students, school administrators, museum staff members, television stations, news representatives and even politicians have been involved in the downlinks. It was not unusual for whole communities to be on hand for a chance to see and hear the astronauts. All it took to make these magical events happen were two phone lines and the ability to receive NASA Television.

Astronaut Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger on the space shuttle with a silver pouch floating in front of her

Astronaut Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger talked with students when she was on the space shuttle during STS-131. Image Credit: NASA

"Learning about how space impacts the human body and scientific principles sparks student curiosity," said Cindy McArthur, Teaching From Space project manager. "Microgravity is a unique research environment, and hearing directly from astronauts who live and work in it helps inspire students to study STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines."

Schools, museums, Challenger Centers and other educational venues provided the locations for live audiences to interact with astronauts. Hundreds of questions and thousands of space enthusiasts played a part in the downlinks. And the astronauts were just as excited about talking with students as the audiences.

"When I was a young child, I was interested in space and remember watching the shuttle launch. Back then, I never thought I would fly into space. When I eventually flew on the space shuttle, the in-flight education downlinks were a way for me to connect to children who were the same age and had the same thoughts that I did. It was also a way for me to connect with high school students who were the same age as the students I taught when I was a teacher. It is a tool that I could use from space to connect with children and inspire them to dream big. The experience allowed me to come full circle," said astronaut Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger, who flew on STS-131.

What's next for students who want to ask more questions of space-based astronauts? NASA plans to continue the education downlinks from the International Space Station. Schools and education organizations can host in-flight downlinks with space station crew members by submitting proposals to host an event. Visit the In-flight Education Downlinks page to learn more about how to apply.

A student asking a question into the microphone and a video image of astronauts on the wall in front of him

La'akea, a student from Pearl City Elementary School in Honolulu, asks a question to the crew members of space shuttle Discovery during STS-119 via a live video downlink. Image credit: Keith Uehara, KUPROHAWAII

NASA's Summer of Innovation project, or SoI, coordinated with the Teaching From Space Office to work with middle students from across the country in a video project that generated the last set of 18 questions for the STS-135 crew. Students recorded their questions, which were collected as video files. Selected questions were streamed to the astronauts aboard Atlantis. The astronauts' responses were streamed live and broadcast on NASA Television. NASA developed the SoI project as a response to President Barack Obama's Educate to Innovate initiative. SoI's focus is on making American students competitive with students from other countries in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. SoI seeks to advance excellence in summer and extended learning programming for underrepresented and underserved middle school students while inspiring them toward future STEM pursuits.

› Watch the final space shuttle downlink.

Questions from the downlink:
  1. How do you feel, this being your last launch up to space?
  2. Are spacesuits itchy?
  3. How do you replace the air that gets lost in the airlocks when you are moving in and out and getting back in for spacewalks?
  4. Where should we go next -- the moon, an asteroid or Mars?
  5. How many pieces of trash are in space?
  6. What's going to happen to NASA after the last mission?
  7. What kinds of food do you take into space?
  8. Do you ever get bored in space?
  9. Do you feel heavy when you get back down to Earth?
  10. Can you text, email or watch TV in space?
  11. How do astronauts sleep at night?
  12. Who picks the members of the mission?
  13. How does it feel to blast off in space?
  14. What is the time difference in space?
  15. Why is there no gravity in space?
  16. How long do y'all stay up in space?
  17. Can you listen to music in space?
  18. How many times have meteors hit the ISS?

Related Resources:
› NASA's Summer of Innovation Project
› In-flight Education Downlinks
› Final Flight of Space Shuttle Atlantis

Kathy Forsythe/NASA Educational Technology Services