There were some tense moments at first, when attempts to get a voice on the other end of the radio were met with just noise.
One radio was on Earth, specifically Flagstaff, more specifically the gym at Northland Preparatory Academy. The other was inside the International Space Station, some 250 miles from our planet and into the final frontier.
At NPA, teacher Kaci Heins tried again and again into her radio. She gave her call sign, KF7RCV, and asked if the astronaut aboard the station at "NA1SS" could hear her. Then a clear transmission came back, a call sign and a greeting: "This is NA1SS, can you hear me, over?"
DAILY LIFE IN SPACE
All of NPA's students were on hand to hear exchanges between classmates and Joe Acaba, a NASA astronaut aboard the station, for a special presentation that truly brought space into school. Students brainstormed questions about life aboard the habitable satellite that is the International Space Station, which covers the span of a football field and is a laboratory for a wide range of research.
With only a few minutes before the station passed out of range of their radio, several students took turns asking about things like the anxiety of launch versus re-entry, knowing when to go to sleep without the usual day and night cues we have at home, or claustrophobia in the close quarters.
One student asked about swallowing in microgravity (the throat muscles can be manipulated to overcome that, Acaba said). Another asked Acaba what he misses about Earth, and he said being outside and under the sun, and also, that a pizza and a cheeseburger sounded pretty good.
He said it's neat to see the Earth from afar.
"It really makes you see how fragile it is and makes you want to take care of it more," he said.
Acaba is one of a six-member crew aboard the station. His colleagues include another American, a Dutchman, and three Russians. He's a flight engineer, with degrees in geology (his master's is from University of Arizona) and experience as a hydrogeologist, Peace Corps participant, U.S. Marine and middle and high school teacher. He arrived at the station this month and will return home in September.
A BRIEF CONTACT
Heins, a sixth-grade teacher with a heavy interest in space science, encouraged students of all ages to submit questions. Their session went quickly, with an "aww" of disappointment when it wrapped up, but students made the most of it.
The radio contact was the highlight of a week of space science at NPA. Students viewed the solar eclipse, launched model rockets and studied moon rocks and meteorite samples earlier this week. Right before the radio chat Lowell Observatory director Jeffrey Hall gave a short talk on science careers.
The Coconino Amateur Radio Club provided key help with the hardware. The students practiced their radio etiquette and pacing the day before -- the International Space Station travels at about 17,500 mph, so the window for radio contact is short. Acaba's responses came as quickly as they would if were sitting in the same room.
Grace Huang, an 11th-grader, thought it was an interesting opportunity for the isolated astronauts to make contact. She asked about conservation of resources like water and electricity.
Acaba told her how limited resources are recycled.
"When we go to the bathroom, we purify that water and end up drinking it," he said.
"I thought, you're up in space for what, six months?" Grace said after her turn on the radio. "You really can't take much stuff with you."
Charisse Ulibarri, a 10th-grader with an interest in health care, wanted to know if you can still catch colds and the flu in space. (Astronauts are quarantined for three weeks before going aboard.)
She said the best part of talking to somebody in space was simple.
"Just the thought of it," she said. "It's insane. They're so far away."
Hillary Davis can be reached at email@example.com or 556-2261.