Howell students make radio contact with astronaut aboard Mir


Published in the Asbury Park Press 4/10/98


HOWELL TOWNSHIP -- American astronaut Andy Thomas floated out of his bunk on the Russian space station Mir yesterday morning and checked the list of things NASA expected him to accomplish. Experiments, equipment checks and just before his bedtime, a visit to the Land O'Pines School.

Back on Windeler Road, the sixth-graders in Teri Kukielka's gifted and talented class didn't need a list to know what was scheduled. Their racing hearts and stomach butterfliestold them that the three-year wait for radio contact with an astronaut was nearly over.

"I'm sorry, but you've got to understand we've been waiting for this for so long and it's finally here," said Christine Curella, explaining why she couldn't sit still.

Through a collaboration of local ham radio clubs, parents, teachers and NASA, the school was cleared to link up with the Mir and allow students to question Thomas as the space station orbited the Earth.

A handful of schools around the world have participated in similar events, but organizers believe no others had students handling every aspect of the communication -- from tracking Mir's location via computer to communicating directly with NASA to fielding press questions.

Even the actual radio communication was done by a student, 11-year-old Douglas Cochran, a licensed radio amateur.

For the past two months, the class has dedicated itself to studying outer space, and Mir in particular. They wrote poetry about space, made Mir-inspired art projects, and learned aboutthe science done aboard the space station.

"I see in this group students who've really studied and learned, and it would not surprise me in any way to in 15 or 20 years be watching one of them walking on the surface of Mars or exploitingthe water resources of the moon," said Douglas' father, Ken Cochran, one of two parent project leaders.

By the time the school's media center had been turned into a command center, the students were dropping words like "microgravity" and "antigen" and "fluid physics" with ease.

In the tense moments before a link was established with Mir, students prepped themselves for disappointment. Once before the event had been canceled when Mir encountered one of its many mechanical problems.

As Jennifer Anderson said, "If something goes wrong on Mir, they are obviously going to fix it instead of talking to us."

But just after 4:30 p.m. as Mir crossed over the Gulf of Mexico, a far-off voice answered Douglas Cochran's radio call, and a shudder of excitement flowed through the room. Within seconds, the children recovered their composure and began peppering Thomas with questions.

They wanted to know if it was difficult to remember all the tasks aboard Mir(yes), how he justified the expense of the space program (its a long-term investment in the future), what he did for recreation on board (e-mailed, exercised, read) and if it was hard to swallow in microgravity (no).

There was a brief loss of communication just as the spaceship passed over Atlantic City, but the link was recovered and questioning continued until Mir moved over Newfoundland and out of radio range.

Land O'Pines will likely be the last school Mir astronauts talk with because the space station will be removed from orbit when NASA's planned international space station is ready some time next year.


Source: Asbury Park Press

Published: April 10, 1998






The library at Land O'Pines School in Howell was converted into a communications center for yesterday's radio link with Mir.


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