Houston, we have a question. A couple dozen, actually.
More than 100 elementary and homeschooled students filled Las Cruces City Hall for NASA’s in-flight downlink event, where a dozen students were able to ask two questions each to Astronaut Ricky Arnold, flight engineer for Expedition 56 onboard the International Space Station.
Museum of Nature and Science Education Curator Stephanie Hawkins helped organize the downlink, which Alamogordo also hosted in February. Hawkins said the region’s history of space exploration and current programs made Las Cruces the perfect site for students to learn about space live from an astronaut.
“Science and technology is still the next frontier and giving kids an opportunity to learn to experiment and make mistakes and explore new subjects and just try to find things that they’re interested in gives them that push to find out that these are careers that they can have in adulthood and find out the steps that they have to go through to get there.”
10-year-old Central Elementary fourth grader Sofia Hill and her sister Jena were among the children selected to ask Arnold what it’s like to live and work on the space station. Hill said she not only wants to be an astronaut when she grows up, she’s ready now.
“I’ve seen pictures in a book all about space. I’ve seen astronauts and all that other fun stuff,” Hill said. “So, I just thought ‘What if I could actually go up there myself?’ So I want to be like if I could right now at this age, I would pretty much want to be the first little kid in space but too bad that’s not possible.”
6-year-old first grader Rayirth Mishra attended the downlink with his class from J. Paul Taylor Academy. Like Hill, Mishra said he also wants to become a commander astronaut when he’s older.
“Because a commander is the boss of the space station. It keeps everybody safe in the space shuttle,” Mishra said.
It takes a system of engineers and technicians both nationally and locally to make the downlink happen according to White Sands Complex Deputy Station Director Dan Hein, who spoke about the history and communications of the Space Network.
Hein said the space station communicates with a fleet of tracking and data relay satellites that rotate with Earth’s orbit. That information gets processed at the White Sands Complex and sent to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center before it’s beamed down to the students. Hein said he hopes students who participated are inspired to pursue careers in the aerospace industry.
“When I was growing up, it was the space race that took us to the moon and I hope that we capture some of that interest in these young people’s hearts. Get them excited about the future of our space program,” Hein said.
Following the downlink, students enjoyed a space science fair featuring activities and demonstrations from organizations like Spaceport America, Virgin Galactic, and the Challenger Learning Center of Las Cruces which simulates space missions for kids.
Lead Flight Director Kathleen Guitar said it’s important to get children excited about space while they’re still young and curious about natural phenomena. Guitar said hosting community space events are invaluable learning opportunities for children.
“When we come into a space like this, the kids come in, they get to see liquid nitrogen demonstrations, the downlinking with the astronaut, all that kind of thing, it opens to their eyes to really what’s out there in terms of aerospace industry and jobs and careers possibly and also just that excitement about science,” Guitar said. “So, we’re really excited to be part of something like this.”
From the looks on their faces, so were the kids. Like a doctor or veterinarian, Hawkins said being an astronaut is something many children think about and can achieve with enough hard work. That’s true, but it’s best to hear from Astronaut Arnold himself.
“It’s a demanding job and there’s a lot of high expectations and all you can really do is give your best and even that on any given day, you’re going to fall short. You’re going to make mistakes. You’re not going to get the job done all the way and you really got to learn to just realize your limitations and give your best effort and when you fall short, just learn from your mistakes and really move on,” Arnold said.
Some down-to-earth advice kids can apply to any career they choose.