April 21, 2014, is a day Allyson Scott says she’ll remember for the rest of her life.
Allyson and 20 of her classmates at Dixon Elementary School got the opportunity to talk to Dr. Koichi Wakata, commander of the International Space Station (ISS).
“I got to talk to astronauts,” Allyson said. “It was the most amazing thing in my entire life.”
After approximately three minutes of effort, communication between the school and the ISS was established by members of the Onslow County Amateur Radio Club when Wakata’s voice came through speakers at 2:08 p.m. EST in the school’s gymnasium. For Bill Wager, a member of the club, the experience was nearly indescribable.
“Very rarely will you get unrestricted contact with the space station,” Wager said. “This was a once-in-a-lifetime event.”
One by one, all 20 students took to the microphone rigged by the club and asked their questions, which ranged from celebrating the holidays to the effect living in micro-gravity can have on eyesight. Hunter Voorhees, a fourth grade student at Dixon Elementary School, asked Wakata who inspired him to pursue his career in aeronautics. Wakata said it was witnessing Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin take their first steps on the moon in 1969, when he was 5 years old that spurred his interest. Hunter said his plans after school will either lead him into space or to the White House as the president of the United States.
“It was pretty cool getting to talk to astronauts,” Hunter said.
The space talk was coordinated in part by Betty Bigney, a Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) teacher. After two previous, unsuccessful attempts to get the Amateur Radio International on the Space Station (ARISS) to conduct the space talk at Dixon, her third submitted application on behalf of Dixon Elementary School was approved by the organization in January.
Though there is no specific cost to apply for the ARISS program, schools are not guaranteed to be selected due to the volume of applications they receive in the United States and abroad.
Bigney said her STEM class has been preparing for the talk since they were approved by holding question-asking rehearsals in the classroom during school hours and during the weekends with members of the Onslow County Amateur Radio Club. The club said they prepared for the talk by connecting with satellites orbiting over the planet, though only the ISS provides a link with live people.
Bigney said the space talk was a unique experience for everyone involved and may be the beginning of a new generation of space explorers and scientists.
“I think it’s the neatest thing,” Bigney said. “Astronauts talking to students are talking to the next generation of scientists. We were all very excited and very nervous.”
Bigney said space is an engaging and fascinating subject for students due to the mystery that comes along with it, saying students “hang on every word” whenever the subject of space travel comes up. Bigney said she prepared her students for the talk by teaching them about subjects including the Apollo missions and showing them samples of moon rock.
According to Bigney, the space talk was a collaborative effort between the school, the amateur radio club and the families of the students involved.
“Everyone’s been so supportive of this project,” Bigney said. “Everyone pitched in and put it all together. The kids see a future in science and they see great support from the community.”
Wager said putting this particular space talk together was challenging, especially withing the timeframe the club had. According to Wager, preparing for communication with the ISS usually takes more than a year, but his club only had three months to put it together, mostly with equipment club members already had.
“Another club said we couldn’t get it done,” Wager said. “We spent many weekends locking onto the space station and satellites. This was an experiment and there were a lot of nervous feelings. This whole thing has been indescribable.”
This is the fourth time in the ARISS program’s history that a North Carolina school has been chosen to participate.