NASA downlink surpasses expectations
Her dark hair floating around her face, astronaut/flight engineer Sunita Williams smiled when a Wickliffe student asked, "What do you do for fun in space?"
Williams let go of the microphone she was holding, watched it float in place, then launched herself backward into a perfect slow-motion back flip.
The elementary students giggled and cheered.
Williams was talking to Upper Arlington's Wickliffe Progressive Community School students from inside the International Space Station (ISS) on Aug. 28.
She said the space station orbits 240 miles above the earth, traveling at 17,500 miles per hour.
The students sat cross-legged on the gymnasium floor while they watched a live broadcast from the space station through NASA TV at nasa.gov/ntv.
NASA's Teaching from Space program made the 20-minute visit possible.
Principal Chris Collaros said NASA chose Wickliffe as one of only six schools in the nation for the ISS downlink.
"This is a once-in-a-life-time opportunity for our students," he said.
Collaros applied for the NASA downlink after hearing from former Upper Arlington administrator Ed Orazen, who learned about the program from a cousin.
"She said her daughter, Suni, would be on the ISS mission," Orazen said. "She told me only six schools would be chosen nationwide, so our chances might be slim, but I thought, this is Wickliffe -- we might just get it."
Orazen served as principal at Jones Middle School from 1973 to 1989, then became principal at Hastings from 1989 to 1992.
"The downlink surpassed my expectations," he said. "I am very happy for the kids."
One of those kids was fifth-grader Andrea Orazen, his granddaughter. She asked the very first question, "What is your biggest fear when you are in space?"
"I don't know that I have too many fears," Williams said. "It feels like a second home up here. I do miss my family and my dog. But I guess my biggest fear is that you never really know if you will see those people again when you go up in space. We expect to have a successful mission, though."
Andrea Orazen said she was nervous right before she asked the question.
"Then I got excited," she said. "I'm just happy we had a chance to talk to her."
Her mother, Shermie Orazen, said, "This was so incredibly cool. The teachers and everyone did a fabulous job."
Williams said the space station orbits earth 16 times a day.
"We see lots of sunrises and sunsets," she said. "We have some great windows and can see down to earth and out to the galaxy. Right now, we are off the east coast of the Atlantic Ocean. In three hours, we'll be able to see the Great Lakes and Ohio. But at 17,500 miles per hour, we zip past things very quickly."
The ISS has been in space for 12 years.
Williams is on Expedition 32 with Joe Acaba; Akihiko Hoshide from Japan and Russian cosmonauts Yuri Malencheno, Gennady Padalka and Sergei Revin. Padalka is the commander of the expedition.
Williams is scheduled to live and work aboard the station until January 2013. She has flown on ISS in the past, on Expedition 14 in 2006, when she established a world record for females with four space walks, then set a new record for females on Expedition 15 -- 195 days in space, according to information on the NASA website. She will be commander of ISS Expedition 33.
"Our mission is mostly focused on scientific experiments," Williams said. "We find out if what we eat contributes to the bone and muscle loss that happens in space, along with other experiments. We're also doing a space walk to replace the electrical box outside and will be putting a cover on the front of the space station where it gets hit by meteorites."
"How do you sleep with the weightlessness and the danger?" was one student's question.
Williams said they sleep in sleeping bags within sleep stations.
"It's dark and it's quiet," she said. "But you know in the back of your head that you are in a spacecraft and that space is not very hospitable to humans unless you are in a spacesuit. You know it is a place you have to pay attention to. We are up at 6 a.m., though, so we're tired and try to get eight hours of sleep each night."
As the downlink came to an end, Collaros thanked Williams for her time "and all you are doing for our country."
Williams smiled and waved at the students, but her voice faltered as she said goodbye.
"Thank you all," she said. "It was fun talking to you in Ohio. It was where I was born and where my mom is from and it was wonderful to talk to all of you."
She ended the visit with another wave and two slow backflips, while the students applauded and waved back.