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March 05, 2014

NASA Links Students to Astronauts

by Mike O'Sullivan

California students got a rare chance to speak with International Space Station astronauts via live video link on Feb. 20 in Los Angeles.

Packing an auditorium at California State University, hundreds of college students, faculty and high school students from the Alliance Marc and Eva Stern Math and Science High School gathered to learn more about living and working on the space station.

Part of an effort by the U.S. space agency to excite young people about science, the 20-minute Earth-to-space call was just one of a series of events surrounding Destination Station: Los Angeles, NASA's campaign to showcase its newest multimedia exhibit at the California Science Center.

Students got answers to questions that ranged from space station hygiene to how astronauts dampen vibrations from equipment. Based 400 kilometers above Earth, the three men — American astronauts Rick Mastracchio and Mike Hopkins, and Japan's Koichi Wakata — talked about their long work days, phone calls home and exercise in the evening.

Speaking from a weightless environment, which Rick Mastracchio described as making impossible things easy and easy things difficult, Astronaut Mike Hopkins did a somersault to demonstrate.

“How did you overcome your greatest obstacle on your road to becoming an astronaut?" asked engineering student Maria Munguia, directing the first question to Mastracchio.

“I went and got a master’s degree, got a job as an engineer and eventually applied as an astronaut," he said. "So I think my interest in space and science, and my abilities in mathematics, had a direct relationship on how I ended up here.”

Engineering student Jeremy Blaire found the astronauts behavior toward each other revealing.

“To me, it looked like they were all friends," said Blaire. "Every time they laughed and they looked back at each other, they laughed with each other about the jokes. I never really thought about how harmonious the crew was up there.”

Student Virginia Mejia says she learned something about perseverance.

“Never stop dreaming," she said. "Never. Because even they said, 'I applied four times, nine times, in a period of nine years, 12 years.' Wow, they never gave up.”

According to NASA educator Becky Kamas, one question comes up with every video link at schools around the country.

“They always ask questions about 'what does it take to become you?'" she says. "And I think the answer is, it takes passion and dedication. And every single one of these students is capable of that.”

Eleven graduates of the California State University system have gone on to become NASA astronauts. These students hope this campus will send the 12th.