Students from Laurel Public Schools and community members spent nearly half an hour this morning talking with an astronaut aboard the International Space Station. The interaction is part of a NASA program to inspire the next generation of astronauts, engineers, and others who will support space exploration.
The question and answer session began with an audio check initiated by Mission Control in Houston making sure the gathered crowd at the Laurel High Library could hear astronaut Drew Fuestel.
“I’ve got you loud and clear on the International Space Station,” replied Fuestel via the Skype connection.
One by one, the pre-selected students from Laurel’s elementary, middle, and high schools, along with a few community members, asked Fuestel questions about space travel, living and working in space, and about his background.
“Growing up, did you ever believe you would end up in the ISS,” asked Eli Weisenberger.
Not really, said Fuestel.
“I struggled in high school. I wasn’t a great student. I had a lot of interests outside of school. One of them was mechanics,” he said.
Fuestel said after high school he attended a community college for 3 years before going on to a university. He has a Ph.D. in the geological sciences, specializing in seismology.
“It was a long path for me to get here,” he said. “I wasn’t sure how that was going to work out, but I stayed positive. I stayed focused and at some point took responsibility for my actions and my own life and stopped relying on others to take care of me or lead the way.”
He said a key lesson for all students is to decide what they want for themselves and then to go for it.
Hundreds of students and community members listened to the Q &A session from the Laurel High Auditorium. The downlink was also broadcast “live” nationwide on NASA TV.
Several Laurel High School and Billings Career Center students are also getting hands-on experience with the space program through what’s known as NASA HUNCH. (HUNCH stands for High Schools United with NASA to Create Hardware)
Students design prototypes of items astronauts would like to see built for use on the International Space Station.
Ethan Gradwohl is in the HUNCH program from Laurel. Last year, Gradwohl and his partner Sam Little designed a new lid for the trash bag container that went up on the ISS.
“As an astronaut who has had several missions in space, how have the projects built by the HUNCH students made your missions easier,” asked the high school junior.
Fuestel says there are HUNCH products all over the space station and the astronauts are excited when a new prototype arrives.
“The things that the HUNCH program does is working up here, right now in space, and is helping us with our long term goal of living in space and exploring the cosmos,” he said.
Fuestel said it’s also a great way to get high school students thinking about this type of work as a career.
Afterwards, Gradwohl said all of his experiences, which included a tour of the Johnson Space Center last week, are helping him toward his career goal.
“I’ve wanted to be an aerospace engineer for a long time so when I saw the HUNCH program at Laurel I thought it would be a good way to get a jump start on that,” he said. “Then with my project getting accepted (for the ISS) it was really cool.”
That’s what Blake Ratcliff, the program manager for NASA’s HUNCH Program at the Johnson Space Center, likes to hear.
“We’re training our future workforce,” he said.
He says the HUNCH program provides many possibilities for students to explore, in addition to the traditional STEM curriculum of mathematics and science.
“And when they start finding out that there are jobs in machining, there are jobs in industrial sewing, quality assurance,” he said.
Laurel Public Schools used the event with the conversation with the astronaut aboard the ISS to launch its first SPACE (science, physics, aviation, computers and engineering) Day. Students throughout the district listened to speakers, could view displays of projects, and - weather permitting – telescopes will be set up tonight to view the ISS.