The first astronauts in space seemed like superheroes: larger-than-life explorers with tales that were almost unfathomable. As people, they seemed as untouchable as the stars themselves. On Monday, Charlotte Central School students in grades four to six got to speak with NASA astronaut Ricky Arnold, who was also larger than life—but mostly because his face appeared on a big screen in the school library, where students spoke to him through videoconference. Personable and engaging, the astronaut, who recently returned from a six-month stint aboard the International Space Station, answered student questions about all things astronaut.
Many questions involved the particulars of everyday life: How was the sleeping schedule on the International Space Station? What was it like to eat in microgravity, and what do astronauts eat? (Surprisingly, they can make pizza.) Erin Caldwell, a sixth grader, had a question, though, that Arnold said he had never heard before. “That’s a great question,” he said. Erin wanted to know where he felt safest: during the space shuttle ride, while he was on the space station, or during a space walk. He said the space station–in part, logically, because there was “no controlled explosion” underneath him, and because there was more to protect him from space than just a suit.
Arnold has been an astronaut since 2007. His most recent trip to the ISS was 197 days long, a time period that he said “flew by.” While on board, he and his fellow crew members monitored 300 experiments a day, including sequencing RNA for the first time and playing the first tennis match in space.
A former middle school science teacher, Arnold answered fifth-grader Rowan Howe’s question about the similarities between teaching students and being an astronaut. Arnold said the two professions had a lot in common. “There are a lot of demands from a lot of people,” he said, which drew laughter from the teachers in the audience, and added that time management is key. He compared working in a school and being on the ISS to being part of a team with a goal. “That team’s job is to prepare you for the great things you’re going to do,” he told Rowan.
The videoconference was arranged through Allan Miller, the CCS digital and transformational learning coach. In an email, he wrote, “This event will serve to ‘launch’ a class project where students will be creating videos that will be added to the “From Vermont to the ISS” site originally created by RETN [retn.org/vermont-iss] where over 20,000 visitors have viewed previous students’ work sharing the excitement of NASA’s cutting edge research in pursuit of expanding the human presence in space to the Moon, Mars and beyond.” Last year, Miller facilitated a live videoconference at CCS directly from the ISS to the school.
Sixth-grade science teacher Tasha Grey asked the final question of the session, which was cut short due to the fact that even astronauts can come down with a terrible cold: What takeaway from his experience would Arnold like to share most with the students? “I think it’s important to keep in mind that all of you have gifts that you have not even uncovered yet,” Arnold said. “You have things that you’re going to do in life that the only way you’re going to find out if you can do them is by trying. And you will find that you have gifts and abilities that you do not realize you have, if you allow yourselves to be challenged,” he said.
“We have a lot of challenges here on planet Earth right now that your generation is going to have to deal with, and you can do it—it’s just that you’ve got to be willing to accept the challenge. Don’t sell yourself short. Accept challenges, do the best you can, and if it doesn’t work out, pick yourself up and try again.”