If you could ask an astronaut orbiting in space any question, what would it be?
Students from several Washington-area schools got to do that recently at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum as part of its “STEM in 30” program.
Among other things, they wanted to know: Is it hard to move around up there? Can you watch TV? How do you know when it’s time for bed? What if you get sick?
In a live video from space, astronaut Randy Bresnik was ready with the answers. He even had some props: freeze-dried food, floating candy and, in case of illness, a high-tech barf bag.
Bresnik began a six-month stay on the International Space Station in July. The station’s six-member crew has three Americans. As they orbit about 250 miles above Earth, they are doing experiments about living and working in space.
Part of their job is telling young people about the challenges and rewards of space travel, something you might do in your lifetime. Bresnik has two children, ages 11 and 7, making him the ideal astronaut to star in a “STEM in 30” webcast. The 30-minute shows aim to hook students your age on STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math — in fun, creative ways.
Bresnik floated around the space station module to display weightlessness. He showed how liquids form bubbles that also float if they escape their containers. He pinged an airborne candy ball off the camera before gulping it down.
The crew exercises 90 minutes a day to stay fit.
“When we exercise . . . you’ve got to be careful not to shake your head too far. Otherwise, the [sweat] goes flinging off,” Bresnik said.
The space station travels five miles per second, circling Earth every 1½ hours. Because the crew sees 16 sunrises and 16 sunsets every 24 hours, they rely on their watches to tell them when it’s bedtime.
Bresnik’s space hobby is taking photos. The colors and views from up there are “amazing,” he said, and every cloud is different. The crew members also watch lots of movies in their free time.
“STEM in 30” broadcasts are interactive. Students can connect from anywhere using the Internet and submit questions for the experts. About 650 kids came to the Smithsonian to see Bresnik’s live video.
“It was really cool,” said Emily Steed, 11, a sixth-grader at Providence Elementary in Fairfax County. “It’s not every day you get to actually talk to an astronaut in space.”
Amina Gasaway, 14, agreed. She’s in ninth grade at Washington’s Phelps High, which focuses on architecture, construction and engineering. Seeing Bresnik makes her want to become an engineer even more than before, she said.
One of the toughest parts of space travel is missing your family. Amina asked Bresnik how he copes with that. He said it’s hard but no different from what military families face when a parent is overseas. He talks to his wife and kids a lot via email and satellite phone.
One of the biggest thrills is the launch. The thrust of the four-booster rocket is like riding the fastest roller coaster, he said. And it lasts for 8½ minutes!
“STEM in 30” hosts Beth Wilson and Marty Kelsey think they have the best jobs ever.
“A middle school student can’t fly out to an aircraft carrier or jump out of an airplane. But we can,” Kelsey says.
There have been 32 webcasts since the program began in 2014. Topics they talk about and demonstrate include the Wright brothers, hot-air balloons, the Tuskegee Airmen, kites and moon rocks. Visit the archive at airandspace.si.edu/connect/stem-30.
You can also check out future shows. The next show, on October 18, is called “Landing a Really Fast Plane on a Really Big Boat.” Your hosts will teach math and science from the flight deck of the nuclear-powered carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower.
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