If you had the chance to ask an astronaut one question, what would it be?
While most people only dream of such an opportunity, a handful of elementary school students got a chance to do just that Tuesday during the 2018 Elementary Engineering Camp in Havelock.
Each summer, the Eastern Carolina Aviation Foundation in partnership with the city of Havelock, Fleet Readiness Center East at Cherry Point., and N.C. State University offer a week-long summer day camp for rising fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders at the Havelock Tourist and Event Center. Students are divided into design teams led by elementary school teachers and are given the challenge to individually design and build various devices, as well as conduct experiments.
This year’s camp offered a special opportunity for 50 students from Craven, Pamlico, Onslow, Jones and Carteret counties — the chance to interact with an astronaut on the International Space Station.
At 2:10 p.m.Tuesday, NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. hosted a downlink event between students and the European Space Agency’s Alexander Gerst, a German astronaut who is serving a six-month mission aboard the International Space Station. More than 800 students across NASA Langley’s five-state region, which includes Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia, participated in the event.
During the 20-minute downlink, students gathered at Virginia Air and Space Museum in Hampton, Va. were able to ask questions about anything they would like to know about life aboard the space station, NASA’s mission and upcoming science investigations. While the students in Havelock weren't able to ask questions in person, they did send in 25 questions for consideration. Gerst answered 10 questions during the downlink, two of which came from the Havelock group.
The first question from the Havelock students asked Gerst to describe what he missed most about Earth.
“I realized that there are some things we take for granted every day, and they only exist on that little planet down there. For example walking through a forest and hearing the leaves whisper, feeling the wind in my face or going for a run in the rain, which I love,” Gerst said.
The second Havelock group question asked if Gerst ever felt cramped in the space station. He explained that the five astronauts currently aboard perform tasks in separate modules and only occasionally cross paths when working.
“It’s much bigger than many people might think. It’s about the size of a big airplane, but with only five other people,” said Gerst.
Gerst answered a wide range of other questions as well, including one about the best and worst parts of living on the station. Gerst said he enjoyed floating and looking out the windows but found flying in space hard to get used to.
“You always have to keep track of items. You can't just put them down anywhere or they’ll just float away,” he explained. “But when I think about the fact that I live here now in the most complex machine that humanity has ever built, that machine is a laboratory that allows us to do research that we can do nowhere else ... just thinking about that is one of the best things I can imagine.”
Another student asked Gerst what his first thought was when he went into space. Gerst said he was struck by the thinness of the Earth’s atmosphere.
“The first thing that came to my mind was ‘Oh my God, we really need to take care of this planet with this little fragile atmosphere,’” he said. “If we don't take care of it, then we might destroy it and make it impossible for us to live on that planet. ... We really only have this one little oasis in a black universe, so we have to cherish it.”
Gerst explained that the astronauts bring the majority of water they need with them aboard the ISS, and then use a sophisticated recycling system to maintain that supply.
“We want it ideally to be a closed-loop system, meaning every drop of water we use we can recycle. When we fly to the moon and Mars, we really need to have very reliable life support systems, and this is really the only reliable place where we can test those systems,” said Gerst.
The astronaut explained that the ISS receives supplies of food only once a month. He said the crew members’ diets consist in large part of dehydrated vegetables.
“They aren't as good as the fresh ones,” he joked. “Mostly we eat out of cans.”
Edwin Sprinkle, a student at Bogue Sound Elementary, said the downlink with Gerst was “awesome.”
“That was so cool,” said Sprinkle. “I really liked it, everything about it.”
Prior to the downlink, the students rotated between five activity stations, performing Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM)-related tasks that ranged from the age-old childhood pastime of building paper airplanes to engineering an efficient and cost effective miniature NASA satellite.
Third-grader Alyssa Melvin congratulated her partner, David Ezzell, as they successfully tested their padded moon landing module made out of rubber bands, straws, paper cups, and marshmallows.
“It was fun,” said Melvin. “We had to put a base on the bottom to make it work right.”
Jobi Cook, associate director of the N.C. Space Grant, said the Elementary Engineering Camp is an opportunity to engage students in STEM learning at an early age.
“This is important for our future workforce,” she noted. “If we can get students excited about science, then it helps them figure out what kind of career they want to pursue. If you wait until college, they pretty much already know what they want to do.”
Tom Braaten, a retired Marine Corps major general who serves on the board of the aviation foundation, said the camp was about preparing students for the future.
“We’re just trying to get them moving from the basics of understanding the engineering process and then eventually some of them will attend N.C. State's engineering degree program and go to work for FRC or one of the other industries in our area, so we’ve grown our own,” said Braaten.