A collective gasp filled the air of the Elliott Ranch Elementary School multipurpose room Wednesday morning as the countdown to a live downlink with the International Space Station began.
“It looks like they are flying over the United States of America right now,” announced Principal Brian MacNeill, at the 30-second mark. He pointed toward a screen showing a view of the Earth from the space station.
The 364 students assembled at the Elk Grove school squirmed, whispered and giggled in anticipation. They had been waiting for this for weeks.
Then it came: “Station, this is Houston. Are you ready for the event?”
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Elliott Ranch was one of two elementary schools selected this year for a National Aeronautics and Space Administration downlink that gave students 20 minutes to talk live to Reid Wiseman and Steven Swanson, the two U.S. astronauts at the space station.
One of the country’s missions is to have one of the first astronauts on Mars, said U.S. Rep. Ami Bera, D-Elk Grove, who attended the school event.
“Many of you will be at the right age to be one of those astronauts,” he said. “One of the first explorers to go there. Push the envelope. You can do anything you want to.”
John Siddens was among the 15 students who had earned the right to ask the astronauts questions by winning a science project competition. The third-grader has been interested in space exploration since the age of 4.
Siddens, who wants to be an astronaut, screamed with delight when his parents told him he would get to talk to the men on the space station.
Wednesday, he asked engineer Wiseman, “Do you have any favorite games you like to play when you have free time?”
The astronaut responded by blowing a small soccer ball around in the micro-gravity atmosphere of the space station.
One by one, the students took their turn. Questions from the first- through sixth-grade students ran the gamut:
“Do you take care of animals in space?” (No, it’s too messy to clean up after them.)
“How can I become an astronaut?” (Work hard.)
“What have you found most surprising or challenging about your work on the ISS that all your special training beforehand didn’t prepare you for? (Keeping track of tools in microgravity.)
The NASA program is part of a yearlong science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) initiative at Elliott Ranch, a rarity for an elementary school, McNeill said.
“There is a whole sector of careers out there that we didn’t expect when we were kids,” he said. “With the competition in this global environment, kids need early exposure to those careers.”
Parent Matt Hessburg said the event will inspire the children and encourage them “to study harder, work harder.”
Eva Mosakowski beamed with pride as her daughter, Harper, asked her question. The mother of two students at the school is the driving force behind the event and the accompanying space-related activities planned at the school this year. Mosakowski, who says she has a passion for science, was perusing the NASA website when she saw information about a program that links schools up with astronauts in space. She applied.
After learning that Elliott Ranch was one of two schools selected for the program, Mosakowski decided to reach out to local experts in the fields of science and engineering to set up more presentations.
“Parents wanted to build this out to get them excited about space exploration and space careers,” she said.
Mosakowski arranged for a Monday visit from UC Davis professor and former astronaut Steven Robinson in preparation for Wednesday’s event. He talked to students about his experience in space, using videos to demonstrate weightlessness and other concepts.
In mid-September, students will get a rocketry lesson from an Aerojet Rocketdyne engineer who is working on the Orion spacecraft, which will carry humans into deep space.
In October, via Skype, students will hear from researchers at Made in Space, a Mountain View company that designed and built a 3-D printer that will be delivered to astronauts at the space station soon. The printer will allow astronauts to print their own tools and parts instead of waiting long periods of time for their delivery, Mosakowski said.
The hardworking mom decided that students at Elliott Ranch needed their own 3-D printer. She signed up at DonorsChoose.com and raised $2,600 to buy the printer, which is due to arrive in the next few weeks. The printer is less elaborate than the one designed for the astronauts, but it will allow students to print out geometric figures – possibly even parts for the school’s Robotics Club, McNeill said.
Principal McNeill had nothing but accolades for Mosakowski, giving her full credit for the downlink and the accompanying STEM programs at the school. “She is one of those people principals dream of having on campus,” she said.
The event brought Superintendent Steven Ladd back to a day more than 50 years ago when his class gathered in a similar multipurpose room to see a space launch on a black-and-white television.
“This brings things full circle for me,” said Ladd, 62, who will retire from the school district Sept. 12. “Fast-forward and the kids are having a dialogue with astronauts.”