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For one day, students from Fort Belvoir Elementary School were encouraged to have their head in the clouds — or above them.

Students from the school got the chance to talk to an astronaut aboard the International Space Station by radio on Wednesday as the space station hurtled by 230 miles overhead.

“It was really cool, and almost unbelievable, because the space station is so far away from us,” said Avril Moyer, a fifth-grader at Fort Belvoir.

Gathered in the school’s science classroom, 18 students took turns asking questions of astronaut Koichi Wakata about his life aboard the space station. The rest of the school followed along on the school’s closed-circuit television.

The opportunity came through a grant from NASA. The grant was awarded to Marymount University’s education department, which sends student-teachers to Fort Belvoir Elementary. Students from all grades one through six submitted questions, and 18 students were selected by teachers to ask their questions to the astronaut.

The radio contact with Wakata had to be timed precisely. The space station speeds around the Earth at 17,500 miles per hour, leaving only a 10-minute window where the radio signal would be strong enough to talk to the astronaut.

So at 2:02 p.m., the students were ready and waiting. When Wakata first radioed in, his voice came in crackly as the ISS flew over Texas, but the signal got clearer as it got closer.

“The sound was a little blurry, but I could still hear him,” said sixth-grader Collin Peterson. “It was really cool.”

Questions for Wakata, an astronaut from the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, ranged from the weight of a space suit to the best part of zero gravity.

Wakata, a flight engineer that has been on the ISS since November, earned points with students by referencing the Fort Belvoir Elementary mascot, the Dolphins.

“I hope you will come to space someday and fly around,” Wakata told students. “You can swim through space like a dolphin swims in the ocean.”

Whether intentional or not, he got students smiling around the room.

That connection between students and Wakata was what Kara Fahy had hoped for while planning the event. Fahy, the STEM (science, engineering, technology and math) resource teacher at Fort Belvoir Elementary, always is looking for ways to get students to connect to their lessons in a new way.

“We want to have real world experiences for our students,” Fahy said. We want to show our students how they can use STEM in careers.”

So when the radio contact, initially scheduled for January, had to be rescheduled because of a problem with the International Space Station’s heating and cooling system, Fahy had sixth-grade students solve the problem alongside the astronauts.

“With Legos, we built our own tool to fix the heating and cooling on the space station,” said sixth-grader Ethan Smith.

After talking with Wakata, more than one student felt the pull of outer space.

Said Smith: “Now I definitely want to be an astronaut.”



kyanchulis@fairfaxtimes.com