Tim Kopra took a break Tuesday from his job as an astronaut orbiting high above Earth in the International Space Station to take a long-distance call.
It was from the students at Harvey Austin School 97 on Sycamore Street. They had a few questions.
“What are the other space agencies that collaborate on the ISS?” one of the students asked. “Over.”
“We have the Russian space agency, Japanese space agency, European space agency and the Romanian space agency all working together with NASA on board the International Space Station,” Kopra said. “Over.”
“How does the ISS avoid space debris and other natural satellites while in orbit?” asked one boy. “Over.”
“That’s a great question,” the astronaut said. “We certainly try to stay clear of debris. We can actually raise or lower our orbit if we find out there is debris that may be dangerous to us – over.”
And so it went, back and forth Tuesday morning, between Buffalo students and the astronaut.
Harvey Austin was one of 14 schools in the United States selected this year to take part in a space chat sponsored by an international consortium of space agencies and amateur radio organizations. The program, Amateur Radio on the International Space Station, encourages students to learn more about space and its related fields – science, technology, engineering and math.
One of the school’s partners, the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, applied to participate.
For months, students at Harvey Austin learned about NASA and the research going on inside the space laboratory, said Lisa Neasbitt, a school mentor with the National Urban Alliance, who said it was unusual for an urban school to be selected to take part. The students prepared their questions for the astronaut and practiced with the Lancaster Amateur Radio Club.
Tuesday was the big day.
“My name is Rashad,” said one of the students. “Do you share food with other cultures on board the ISS? If so, what type and what is your favorite? Over.”
“We do share food with the other cultures on board,” Kopra said. “We have a lot of Russian food. We have Japanese food on board. ... I think one of my favorite foods here is a Russian dish that has veal and vegetables. Over.”
Neasbitt sought help from SUNY Buffalo State to help pull off Tuesday’s question-and-answer session.
The students gathered in the Whitworth Ferguson Planetarium on the Elmwood Avenue campus.
The planetarium had to conference call with a moderator in Sweden and connect with a ham radio operator in Australia, where his signal would connect with the space station as it passed overhead.
“For me, it was a lot of work coordinating and setting up, but to see the excitement of the kids it was worth it,” said Kevin Williams, director of the Buffalo State planetarium.
One by one, more than two dozen Harvey Austin students in fourth through seventh grade stepped up to the microphone to question Kopra, a 52-year-old retired Army colonel from Lewisburg, Ky., who launched in December. Photos of Kopra were projected on a large screen.
“What types of activities do you do in space to keep yourself healthy? Over,” asked one student.
“We work very hard to make sure that we stay healthy,” Kopra said. “We exercise about 2½ hours a day. We try to get good sleep and eat good food. Over.”
How many people are aboard the space station? one student asked.
Six, at the moment, Kopra said. In fact, Kopra said, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and two Russian cosmonauts would be leaving the space station and taking a space craft back to Earth later Tuesday.
The Q&A went on for about 10 minutes before the space station passed out of range and the signal cut out.
There were a couple of early glitches and a little bit of crackling, but overall, organizers were pleased.
“I thought it was cool,” said Eloni Herndon, 11, “because we got to talk to an astronaut.”
Seventeen of the 25 students ended up getting in their questions.
Denise Yerry, a sixth-grader, asked who determined the flight patterns of the space station, but Kopra was gone before she got her answer.
“I wasn’t disappointed,” said Denise, 11, adding that she was excited just to be with her friends and talking with an astronaut.
“I thought, ‘Maybe I want to be an astronaut when I grow up,’ ” Denise said afterward, “but right now I’m not sure what to do.”