Students at Jack Swigert Aerospace Academy had a real out-of-this-world experience on Thursday.
Eighth grader Ian Robertson got to bid "good morning" to two NASA astronauts, and sixth grader Karen Arvizo asked how they eat their food since there's no gravity in space.
"It was very exciting," Ian said.
"It was fun," Karen said.
What made the conversation unique is that the astronauts are aboard the International Space Station, which is orbiting 260 miles above the Earth. And they spoke to the students live.
American flight engineers Steve Swanson and Rick Mastracchio, two of six crew members of ISS Expedition 39, chatted with the students in Colorado Springs via a special downlink made possible through NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
The astronauts appeared on a large screen set up in the school auditorium.
The pair demonstrated how they can toss food into their mouths or simply suspend a bite in the air and move their bodies toward it.
Karen said that was her favorite part of the 20-minute exchange, and now she really wants to become an astronaut.
"I've always wanted to go up in space," she said.
Students also were interested in knowing how often the astronauts take a shower, how their days compare to being on Earth, how they use science and math principles and what they do for fun.
The answers went something like this. Because there's no running water in space, astronauts shower before and after their flight and take sponge baths during their mission.
Their days follow a similar routine: They cover the windows of the orbiter, sleep for eight hours, have breakfast, brush their teeth and go to work. But it's a shorter commute, they joked.
They use a lot of science and math in doing their jobs of collecting samples and repairing equipment. For example, Swanson and Masatracchio took a short space walk on Wednesday to replace a backup computer, a vital data link to Earth.
For fun, they take advantage of weightlessness and float around in the air. Swanson did a back flip for students. They also take pictures of their hometowns from large windows. The ISS orbits the Earth every 90 minutes and flies at 17,500 miles per hour, they said.
Classes at Jack Swigert selected 15 students to each ask one question, which they also voted on, said Cami Debise, project manager for the Magnet Schools Assistance Program grant. The funding is enabling the charter middle school, a project of the Space Foundation and Colorado Springs School District 11, to develop its aerospace focus.
"You can bring in guest speakers but to have students be able to speak to the astronauts while they're in space and answer their questions is an amazing opportunity," Debise said. "I think it opens their eyes to all the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) activities out there."
Students from schools in Texas, Alabama, Michigan, Minnesota and New York also watched the event.
Jack Swigert, which has about 500 students, has been trying to get selected for a live educational downlink through NASA's Digital Learning Network almost since it opened in the fall of 2009, said Maripat Webster, who also works with the grant program.
This time, connections helped. An Air Force Academy engineering instructor, Col. Jim Dutton Jr., piloted the Space Shuttle Discovery in 2010, during the STS-131 mission. Mastracchio was one of the crew members, and the two became friends. Dutton asked Mastracchio if he would do a downlink from his current mission with cadets at the academy. After getting the go-ahead, Dutton decided to extend the unusual opportunity to Jack Swigert because of its space and astronautics emphasis and involve cadets who are in the STEM Outreach Club. About 60 cadets attended the downlink and then provided engineering-related demonstrations and hands-on activities for students for the remainder of the day.
Winston Sanks, a junior at the academy and president of the STEM Outreach Club, said the group does up to 70 demonstrations in the community each year but the event at Jack Swigert was unlike any other.
"Talking live to the astronauts was a great way to start the program," he said.
Cadets taught the middle school students how to fire a hybrid rocket, operate robotic arms with an Xbox controller, create a mini water treatment facility and build airplanes.
"Honestly, we just love getting out in the community and inspiring kids about STEM," Sanks said. "This is our way of having fun."