Students have rare live chat with astronaut aboard ISS


Ever wondered what it would be like living in outer space?

Students at Hendricken High School and St. Mary Academy Bay View got a once-in-a-lifetime experience to explore those very inquiries, as they conducted a historic live question and answer session via amateur radio with Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli as he traveled in orbit aboard the International Space Station (ISS) on Thursday afternoon.

The program – Amateur Radio on the International Space Station (ARISS) – has been around since about 2000, and strives to educate and engage students in a unique and unforgettable way in order to drum up interest in science, technological, engineering and mathematical (STEM) fields. It was the first ever contact of its kind with a school in Rhode Island.

Mike Cullen, an Air Force veteran, IBM software designer, father of a Hendricken freshman and self-proclaimed “wanderer,” helped organize the “Space Chat” over a span of about 13 months. It involved collaboration with radio operators in Atlanta and Northern Italy – and enabled an approximately 8-minute window where the ISS would be in radio contact before passing out of range at its brisk pace of about 13,500 miles per hour.

“I’m certainly not sure what the kids of today call this opportunity, but in my day we would just call this really, really cool,” said John Jackson, president of Hendricken. “And indeed it is.”

Questions were narrowed down from about 200 entries among the two student bodies into 16 final questions, asked by eight students from each school. The Beacon has done its best to transcribe some of the questions and responses from Nespoli, which can be read below. Some portions of answers were unintelligible, and only clear portions of the responses were logged.

How has your experience in space affected your personal and world beliefs?

P: That’s a very deep question there…anything that alters our horizons and makes us think better with respect to our position on Earth and outside the Earth is good.

Does cell growth become stunted, accelerated or remain constant in space?

P: It’s also a very deep question that we don’t have an answer. It’s not so easy. Some cells have been found to be accelerated, some have remained constant. There is research going on and this is part of what we are doing. There is still a lot left to learn.

What results in space yielded the greatest results back here on Earth?

P: Again that’s a very tough question...I think we’ve had very good, unexpected results in almost every major field.

As humans are on the cusp of space travel, what new fields of study will astronauts need?

P: I think what we need in an astronaut is somebody that can do everything, and by everything I mean we need someone who is good with mechanics…and [has] a good education, but also somebody that can complete a procedure and is not scared doing it up in space in a dangerous and difficult environment.

How do you combat the loss of muscle mass and strength while in orbit?

P: We do two hours of physical fitness every day…one hour of cardiovascular exercise on a treadmill or on a stationary bike and about one hour of weight training.

Do you have any concerns about private companies becoming involved in space travel?

P: My personal view is that space news is very good. I would like everybody to come up here to see its beauty and look at the Earth from here. I bet everybody would be a better version of themselves [if that were possible].

With all the global problems that are ongoing, why spend money on space travel?

P: Without science and technology we don’t progress.

What Earthbound activities do you miss the most while in orbit?

P: I miss social activities like going out for pizza with friends, but I will say it is very nice up here.

Special thanks was given to Claudio Arriotti, the radio operator in Italy who connected Hendricken to the ISS. All involved in the space chat expressed their excitement and gratitude at being able to provide the experience to a full theater of kids, some of whom might be inspired towards a scientific field as a result.

“What an amazing opportunity,” said Mayor Scott Avedisian, who sported a huge grin following the event. “If even one kid who saw this is inspired to grow up and get into the field, that’s amazing.”

Avedisian said, perhaps only half-jokingly, he was going to get on Warwick Superintendent Philip Thornton to make something like this happen in a Warwick public school.

“That’s a pretty great way to start the day,” he said.

Four students at Hendricken who recently earned their amateur radio licenses were inspired to create an amateur radio club as a result of their anticipation of the space chat. They have been granted their own call sign, W1BHX, by the Federal Communications Commission.

“To this place’s credit, it’s been a sports powerhouse for such a long time, but they’re equally interested in making sure that they have a vital academic program with all of these extracurricular STEM activities – language activities, science stuff like robotics and now this year, brand new, amateur HAM radio,” said Cullen.

Cullen followed up the chat with a short film that included stunning video renderings of potential scenes of future space exploration on top of legendary astronomer and astrophysicist Carl Sagan’s short lecture, “Wanderers.” Following the film’s conclusion, Cullen then gave some inspiration of his own to the kids.

“I am really confident with what is taking place within the space industry that you’ll have human beings and potentially members of Hendricken and Bay View High Schools participating in a Mars mission within the next 25 to 30 years,” he predicted. “Be open to adventures, take advantage of them at all your schools, wherever you happen to be at school. Try some more explorations – academically, inside and outside – and try a tad of wandering. I’ve wandered a lot in my life, and it’s served me fairly well.”


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