Scariest thing about space? Spacewalks

‘Spaceman to First Creek…Spaceman to First Creek’

12/21/2017 | TACOMA, Washington

[Photograph courtesy of NASA: View of Mark Vande Hei, Expedition 53 Flight Engineer, inspecting the Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) for upcoming Extravehicular Activity.]

The International Space Station orbits the earth from more than 200 miles away. But for 22 minutes this month, it was only four seconds away from a group of First Creek Middle School students.

That was how long it took for replies from the space station to reach movie screens at Galaxy Theaters in Gig Harbor, where 70 students from First Creek joined 1,000 others from neighboring school districts for a live question-and-answer session with astronaut Mark T. Vande Hei.

“It was pretty cool hearing from an astronaut circling in space,” said Sarah Virgillo, an eighth-grader at First Creek. “There’s only so many people who get to see something like that, and I’m one of those people.”

Wearing red-and-black First Creek T-shirts and hoodies, Virgillo and her schoolmates joined the buzzing crowd that filled the theater’s 10 screening rooms plus a new IMAX auditorium, which served as ground zero for the two-way video feed.

First Creek seventh-grader Branton Waitiki waited patiently in Theater 8 for the space station link to go live—while clutching a small wad of cash surely destined for the concession stand. “Will we get to ask any questions?” Branton whispered.

Branton was disappointed to learn that the kids asking the questions were chosen ahead of time from other schools. “I really wanted to ask (the astronaut) a question ...  how long has he been in space?” Branton said.

(Astronaut Vande Hei arrived at the space station Sept. 12 on his first space mission, and will return to Earth in February.)
A moment later the space station feed popped onto the screen. Dressed in blue, Vande Hei stood quietly in a passageway staring at a clipboard.  Then a voice from NASA’s mission control center broke the silence.

“Station, this is Houston. Are you ready for the event?” Four seconds later, Vande Hei looked up from his clipboard. “Houston, this is station. We are ready for the event.”

The event’s organizer, West Sound STEM Network, spent months working with NASA, Galaxy Theaters, Tacoma STEAM Network and others to make the moment possible. The West Sound STEM and Tacoma STEAM networks are coalitions of education, business, and government that work to inspire students to study science, technology, engineering and math.

Besides the Q-and-A with Vande Hei, students listened to live and taped presentations from educators, elected officials and military representatives promoting STEM education and careers. In addition, Galaxy Theaters treated students to a free showing of the inspirational adolescent film “Wonder.”

“It was a great experience for our kids,” said First Creek science teacher Betsy Constantine, who brought students from her robotics and engineering classes. “We are an extremely diverse school and our students need to hear (about STEM) constantly and be exposed to it constantly so that it becomes a reality in their lives.”

Students peppered Vande Hei with questions about everything from what’s the scariest thing he’s done (spacewalks) to what he misses most about earth (his family and feeling the sun and the wind) to how do crew members clean the outside of the space station (they don’t because things don’t get dirty in space).

When it came time for the Q-and-A to end, Vande Hei signed off with a floating backflip and a smiling, “Thanks!”

First Creek seventh-grader Lily Kohansby said her favorite question was how microgravity would affect bread rising aboard the space station. Vande Hei said it would most likely rise the same as on earth. Why was that question Lily’s favorite? “Because it had something to do with food,” she said.

Eighth-grader Elijah Calhoun was disappointed Vande Hei remained in one spot while answering questions.  “I thought he would show us around the space station a little bit,” he said.

Although he wants to be a graphic designer, not an astronaut, Elijah would gladly accept an invitation to visit space. “That’s the last frontier of humanity— the last place we can go,” he said.

Linking students directly to astronauts aboard the space station provides unique, authentic experiences designed to enhance student learning, performance and interest in STEM. This in-flight education downlink is an integral component of NASA’s Year of Education on Station which provides extensive space station-related resources and opportunities to students and educators.

Follow the astronauts on social media:
See videos and lesson plans highlighting research on the International Space Station at: