Alabama School Makes Radio Contact with International Space Station Astronaut

Rainbow Middle School was one of 12 schools chosen to participate in different radio conversations with astronauts after agreeing to educate its students about space beforehand.

by Benjamin Nunnally, The Gadsden Times, Ala. / January 5, 2017 0
Backdropped by the blackness of space and the thin line of Earth's atmosphere, the International Space Station is seen from Space Shuttle Discovery as the two spacecraft begin their relative separation. Earlier the STS-119 and Expedition 18 crews concluded 9 days, 20 hours and 10 minutes of cooperative work onboard the shuttle and station. Undocking of the two spacecraft occurred at 2:53 p.m. (CDT) on March 25, 2009. NASA on The Commons via Flickr

(TNS) — Students at Rainbow Middle School had more than classes to return to Wednesday on their first day back to school: a scheduled interview with astronaut Robert Shane Kimbrough during an assembly in the school gym.

The only catch? Kimbrough would be speeding through space at 17,000 miles per hour on board the International Space Station during the conversation.

Members of the Gadsden Amateur Radio Club operated radio equipment that put the students in touch with the ISS as it crossed over the United States. Though some parts of the setup were complicated, GARC Treasurer Ray Forrester said the main tool in use was a two-way radio, which any amateur radio enthusiast could use to tune into the station's signal. Still, he said to the assembly, the whole thing was exciting.

"Maybe more exciting for us even than for you all," said Forrester, joking with the assembled students, who included fifth-graders from John Jones and Southside elementary schools.

A computer program projected onto a large screen showed the path of the ISS as it swung over the east coast of the United States, with a large circle that represented the station's line of sight moving over the map. As the circle passed over a small cross marking Rainbow City, students were able to make contact with the station.

Rainbow Middle eighth-grader Catherine Carlton initiated contact with Kimbrough, after which 19 students — sixth-graders CJ Townsel, Walker Robinson, Dra'Son Champagne, Mia Davis, Alaina Gregerson, Rylei Kitchens, Collins Davis, Lane Falcon, Carlee Wright, Abby Fernandez, Cody Roberts, Conner Curvin, Ella Bowling, Emma Grizzard, Bryse Simmons, Maddie Griffith and Amira Augustus, and seventh-graders Andrew Chandler and Hannah Whorten — were able to ask questions.

Questions ranged from whether Kimbrough felt any pain on liftoff (he didn't) to what he was thinking during the hours waiting to launch ("I was thinking I was right where I was supposed to be," he said).

Other questions were more practical, like Curvin asking whether chores were easier or harder in zero gravity.

"You can't just expect to put things down and have them there when you come back," replied Kimbrough.

Emma Grizzard asked about astronauts voting in the November election, and Kimbrough responded that he had, in fact, voted from the space station.

Carlton said she volunteered to open contact with the space station.

"I asked to do it because I love everything to do with space," she said. The eighth-grader won the Space Academy for Leading Students in Alabama scholarship last summer, she said, which paid her tuition to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville.

As the interview closed, Kimbrough said he was impressed with the students.

"It sounds like you've been studying space quite a bit leading up to this, and that's great," he said. "You have an awareness that most Americans, believe it or not, don't have, and they don't understand the space station as well as you do now, so I applaud you for that."

Principal Matt Brooks thanked the GARC and the Rainbow City Fire Department, which helped the project by using its equipment to place an antenna on top of the school gym. Student Scott Wall sang the national anthem, and the school's brass choir performed.

The event was spearheaded by Rainbow Middle science teachers Jennifer Kilgo and Joy Russell, alongside Forrester, as part of the Amateur Radio on the International Space Station program. Its mission is to introduce children to science, technology, engineering and math through radio communication with the ISS.

Rainbow City Middle School was one of 12 organizations chosen to contact the space station this spring, according to Kilgo. It was granted the opportunity after creating an education and equipment plan as part of the application process.

Russell said she hopes the students will see that they can be a part of STEM fields and make a contribution from Alabama, with organizations like Huntsville's Marshall Space Flight Center.

"We've been trying to help these kids realize that here in Alabama, an hour and a half away, you have people that are daily working with astronauts," said Russell.

(c)2017 The Gadsden Times, Ala., distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.