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Calling Deep Space: Students Converse With Space Station Astronaut

An astronaut aboard the International Space Station told students at Chiddix Junior High School and the Challenger Learning Center Summer Space Camp that he never tires of looking out into deep space and what he misses most about earth when he's on a mission is a "big juicy bacon cheeseburger."

Astronaut Joe Acaba, one of the three astronauts on board, spoke to the students for about nine minutes via ham radio in a call that began at 10:30 a.m. Monday as the space station passed over central Illinois.

Sixteen students were able to ask 23 questions of Acaba, who was the first person of Puerto Rican heritage accepted into the astronaut program.

Expressions of nervousness on the students’ faces gave way to broad smiles when Acaba responded after three call tries to the space station by their fellow classmate Dhruv Rebba, one of the youngest ham radio operators in the country.

“N A One SS, N A One SS, this is Whiskey Nine Alpha Mike Lima calling. Over," Rebba repeated. 

Finally the response came, "This is November Alpha One Sierra Sierra. I have you loud and clear … Welcome to the International Space Station."

The first thing students wanted to know is how astronauts prepare mentally and physically for their time away from earth on the space station, which can last from several months to a year. 

"We have two years of initial training and once we get assigned, we have another two years of training. So we have a lot of studying to do and we've got to stay healthy so we can work hard up here," Acaba responded.

Once on board, he said the astronauts physically work out every day for about two hours using a stationary exercise bike and treadmill that employs a harness to keep them from floating in zero gravity.

"Keeping our bones and muscles strong is one of the most important things," he said.

The answer that drew the biggest response from the students is what Acaba misses most about earth: "A big juicy bacon cheeseburger." Oh yes, and earth's weather.

Asked about his favorite places to fly over, Acaba demurred, saying all of the earth seen from space "is so beautiful." Still, he added, "I really like the blue waters of the Caribbean."

One student asked him to describe what it feels like to travel in space.

"It is awesome. It's the best place to travel outside the planet and I hope you all have a chance to visit one day," he said.

"I can look out there every day for the rest of my life and it wouldn't become old," he added. 

The students were able to speak with the Space Station through the Amateur Radio on the International Space Station program, known as ARISS. On hand to help the students with any problems in transmission were several members of the Central Illinois Amateur Radio Club. But the call went off without a hitch. 

Several parents were also on hand to listen to the call, and cheer on the students, as were members of the Challenger Learning Center of Heartland Community College, and the Children's Discovery Museum.

Asked about what he studied in school, Acaba told the students his favorite subjects were the sciences, engineering and math.

Acaba, 50, joined NASA in 2004 and has logged 138 days in space during two missions.

He said astronauts work during the week on board the station, but have time for rest on the weekends. "The days go by pretty quickly," he added.

Asked about his favorite feature film about space, he said it is "Apollo 13" about a moon launch in which the three astronauts on board nearly didn't return from space. 

He said he was inspired by NASA's Apollo moon landings to become an astronaut.

Acaba said he is currently working on growing lettuce aboard the space station, and the astronauts are looking forward to eating a fresh vegetable soon.

The other two astronauts on board are Paulo Nespoli, an Italian, and fellow American Mark Vende Hei, the commander.

Asked about his scariest experience in space, Acaba said, "Going out on space walk can be kind of scary, but also exciting." On a space walk last week, Acaba's tether malfunctioned, but he was able to return safely to the space station.

The students had a window of only 10 minutes in which to remain in contact with the station before it flew too far out of reach for local ham radio antennae. 

"On behalf of all the students here at Chiddix, we wish you and your crew he best of luck on the International Space Station," Rebba said in farewell.

"It was definitely a pleasure," Acaba responded.

The student who participated in the questioning are all sixth, seventh or eighth-graders.

Student Jack Spies called the experience "just amazing."

"I'm very honored I was chose to be a part of this," said Michael Harding. "It was all so interesting."

"It's kind of cool to go around saying I talked to an astronaut," said Olivia Thomsen.

Josie Melrose said she wants to go home and watch "Apollo 13."

"You almost get to see and experience the same thing (as in space), only in a movie," she said.

"I think it's definitely a must see now that I have had this experience" of speaking to an astronaut, Claire Campbell said. 

Campbell said she one day might apply for the space program.

"I think it would be really cool to experience the sights and weightlessness that happen in space," she said.

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