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Students on Class Trip 'Visit' Space Station Astronauts

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station spoke with Washington, D.C. middle school students on Tuesday about what it is like to live and work in space.

It was not a typical class trip.

More than 100 students gathered in an auditorium at the Department of Education for an out of-this-world experience. Row upon row of students, ranging from about 10 to 13 years of age looked straight ahead.

It started with some space trivia questions, prompting students to eagerly raise their hands.

QUESTIONER: "Now, what year did we launch STS [i.e., Space Transportation System] 1 -- the first space shuttle? You weren't alive! Was it 1979, 1981 or 1983? Let's see, right here."
STUDENT: "1981."
QUESTIONER: "It was 1981. You guys are good! [APPLAUSE Fade Under TEXT Below]"

But the real draw for these students was the chance for them to ask questions of three NASA astronauts who are living on the International Space Station. The astronauts appeared on a big screen in the auditorium, live via a video link. An empty white space suit floated behind the trio in near-zero gravity, like an observer.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke into the microphone that the students would use to ask questions of the astronauts. After a short delay, NASA astronaut Doug Wheelock responded from aboard the orbiting laboratory.

DUNCAN: "Station, this is Arne Duncan, and we have some fantastic students here from Deal Middle School and Hart Middle School . . .
WHEELOCK: "We have you loud and clear. Welcome aboard the International Space Station."

At least one student's jaw dropped in excitement. Many craned their necks, eager to get a better view. Some snapped photos of the screen showing Commander Wheelock and fellow astronauts Shannon Walker and Scott Kelly.

Then the questions, written in advance with their teachers' seals of approvals, began.

STUDENT 1: "What kind of research are you working on, and how will it help us understand our planet and the universe?"
STUDENT 2: "How do you communicate with other crew members if people are from different countries?"
STUDENT 3: "What is the most beautiful thing you have ever seen from space?"
STUDENT 4: "What inspired you to become an astronaut?"
STUDENT 5: "Do you feel like your job is dangerous?"

The astronauts answered each question, after about a five-second delay.

WHEELOCK: "We have at any one given time over 130 experiments going on onboard. We're studying the Earth, studying space, studying our bodies and our bodies' reactions to being in space."
WALKER: "One thing we have to do is learn different languages. Another thing is we generally speak English aboard the space station. But I can assure you, when I was studying in Russia to be the co-pilot of the Soyuz, I had to learn the Russian language so I could communicate with the Russian control center in Russian."
WHEELOCK: "We actually had a night where the moon was full and the sun was coming up, and we had this beautiful aurora, and the moon was shining off the aurora, as was the sun, the rising sun. And so it was pretty dramatic and just a beautiful, beautiful picture."
KELLY: "When I was a kid, it was definitely something I was interested in. Well, you know, flying in space is somewhat dangerous. You know, we're flying around the Earth at 17,500 miles an hour [28,000 kilometers per hour] in an almost near vacuum."

NASA and the Department of Education say the goal of the event was to show students the value of studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Walter, an 11 year-old student who has received top marks in math and science, got the message. "Well, it kind of inspired me to move on to greater things than I thought I could achieve," he said.

Walter says he might want to be an astronaut after seeing what he thought were amazing things.

"In outer space, they took like the 335-pound [152 kilogram] space suit and they picked it up since there was no gravity. That was kind of cool!," he said.

Eleven-year-old Emily says the coolest things she saw were pictures of our own planet that astronauts have taken from orbit. A particularly memorable one showed a heart-shaped island in bright blue water.

"It was just, like, it seemed just unreal in a way like that -- how close up and just how amazing it is to see from the outside," she said.

It might be a view that some of these students will see for themselves. More than a dozen hands shot into the air when the students were asked whether they wanted be one of the astronauts who will visit Mars one day.