With questions written on note cards in hand, about 30 of Dr. Laura Lamar’s fifth-grade students eagerly anticipated the arrival of Dr. Patricia Moore, NASA Digital Learning Network specialist, who video conferenced with them early Tuesday afternoon from Johnson Space Center in Houston.
From her location at the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility, Moore gave students an overview of the Johnson Space Center, Mission Control and updates on what’s going on at the International Space Station, which is orbiting the Earth at 17,500 miles per hour about 220 miles above the planet with six astronauts on board.
“At Johnson Space Center, we focus on human space exploration and astronaut training,” Moore told the students.
During a 30-minute informational session, Moore told students 13,000 people work at Johnson Space Center, with only a few hundred who are astronauts. She said there are teachers (like herself), media representatives, doctors, lawyers and all kinds of professions that work at NASA.
“Only about 60 of (the 100 astronauts) are active astronauts that are eligible to go in space,” Moore said. “There are lots of careers at the Johnson Space Center that are unrelated to being an astronaut.”
She also showed live views of astronauts working in the training pools at Johnson Space Center that are used to imitate the zero-gravity feeling in space as well as a live view of the International Space Station and Mission Control.
“The space station is actually bigger than a football field and is about the volume of a five-bedroom home and uses about the same amount of power and electricity you would use in your house,” Moore said, adding that the power is generated through solar panels attached to the space station, which was built about 12 years ago.
Moore also shared plans NASA has for the future, including a new rocketship the organization is building to send astronauts into space and a new spaceship called Orion that looks similar to the Apollo 11, which was used in the first moon landing in 1969.
“It’s bigger, it’s better, it’s got newer technology and can fit more people,” she said.
She said the first unmanned test of the spaceship is planned for 2015.
“The spaceship may be used to go to the moon, Mars or another asteroid,” she said. “Between 2015 and 2017, we’ll hopefully have a spaceship that’s ready to go into space. Right now, our goal for NASA is to look beyond Earth and look for places to go.”
Students also learned about the dehydrated food that astronauts eat and how microgravity affects everything astronauts experience and do in space.
Later, students had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Tara Ruttley, an associate program scientist for the International Space Station, and Dan Huot, a NASA public affairs officer.
Student Sebastian Vizuete asked what kinds of science experiments are performed in space.
Ruttley said any kind of experiment that can be done on Earth can be done in space — with much more interesting results.
“It’s a lot more fun than what I did as a student in my science fair days,” Ruttley said. “The No. 1 coolest thing I think they work on is the human research. They test their own bodies for changes that occur in microgravity.”
“What they’re finding is that our bones start to get weaker, our muscles start to shrink, our heart changes size because it’s pumping fluids differently … any system in the human body you can think of, they’re doing an experiment to figure out what’s going on with the changes in space,” Ruttley said
Ruttley said they are also doing experiments in physics, biology and just about every scientific or engineering discipline.
Student Sequoyah Jackson asked how many planets have been recently discovered and where they are located.
Ruttley said NASA’s Kepler Telescope has discovered 461 potential new planet candidates.
“Of all of those, four of those are in what’s called the ‘habitable zone’ and have the potential to have water on the surface,” Ruttley said.
Lamar said she thought the students really enjoyed the experience and were able to bring thoughtful questions related to their recently-completed biology unit.
She said her other five science classes will be able to experience the same video conference in coming weeks.
“I think they really liked the question-answer part,” Lamar said. “The kids get excited. All of those experiments they’re doing now in outer space relate to everything we’re learning in science.”
Lamar said she’s also in talks with a physics professor at Georgia Tech about doing a hands-on experiment using the video conferencing system.
“(The scientists) serve as live role models instead of just seeing their teachers all the time,” Lamar said. “Some of these kids now think, ‘I want to do what they’re doing and school is important to get me there.’ That makes my job easier, but I have high expectations. I tell them, ‘if you want to do that, you’re going to get there by being engaged with your education.’”