Astronauts, Students Connect at UA Lunar and Planetary Lab
Students from Gridley Middle School in Tucson got a 30-minute window to ask Mark Kelly, Gregory Johnson and Ron Garan questions about life in space.

By Jeff Harrison, University Communications
May 31, 2011

More than 80 students from Gridley Middle School put their summer vacations on hold for a chance to talk to astronauts in space last Friday evening.

The students made up about half of a packed audience at the University of Arizona Kuiper Space Science Building. Along with them were parents, local STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) teachers, a number of the emergency personnel who responded to the Jan. 8 shooting in northwest Tucson and staff members who work for Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

The event was sponsored by the UA Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, NASA and Giffords' congressional office and included an invitation from UA student Kyle Stephens for the students to join the Arizona Space Grant Consortium. Also featured was a demonstration of greenhouse technologies being designed for manned space projects by UA agricultural/biosystems engineering Professor Gene Giacomelli, director of the UA Controlled Environment Agriculture Center.

But the draw was Mark Kelly, the commander for the final flight of NASA's space shuttle Endeavour, and the husband of Giffords, a Tucsonan who sits on the U.S. House Science, Space and Technology Committee.

Gridley students used a 30-minute feed from space to rattle off more than one dozen questions to Kelly, Endeavour pilot Gregory Johnson and Ron Garan, commander of the U.S. mission aboard the International Space Station.

One question asked was, "What feelings did you have going onto the space station?"

Johnson said, looking out the window, he was amazed at the speed of Endeavour going into orbit, so much so that Kelly reminded him to stay focused.

Other questions: 

Why do things have to be tied down? If you don't, things get lost.

How do you adjust to zero gravity? "This is my fourth flight and my body remembers what it's like," Kelly said. "Space station crew members say it can take a month to get used to it."

How long does it take to readjust back on Earth? "A few days," Johnson said, "but it took me a day or two before I didn't have to think about it." Rehab for station crew in space for six months can take longer, he added.

What do you eat? Pretty much normal food, Kelly said as Garan got some laughs by eating pineapple chunks floating in zero gravity.

How do you sleep? In a sleeping bag tied to something to keep from bumping into other people and waking them up, said Kelly.

How do you grow plants in space? Garan said they were studying that, seeing how plants grow without gravity, which affects soil moisture, plant metabolism and other factors important for future manned missions. He said it also develops knowledge that will help to understand how to help people on Earth deal with drought.

Other questions ran from "How do you make gravity?" to "Why is everything painted white?"

At the end of the satellite feed, Kelly and the others exited by floating up and out of camera range.

UA President Robert Shelton said that "NASA could not have chosen a more appropriate venue for this event," as the UA has been involved in most major NASA operations for half a century.

"The UA will continue our work in space exploration , work with our friends at NASA, and so there are opportunities at this university right here in Tucson for young people to participate in space exploration."

Michael Drake, director of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and the principal investigator for NASA's just-announced OSIRIS-REx mission, told students they would be in college and graduate school during the most important phases of that project.

"Congresswoman Giffords strongly believes that our nation's space program can spark the imaginations of students and help create the next generation of scientists, engineers and mathematicians," said Pia Carusone, Giffords' chief of staff. "That is the goal of this event – to get kids excited about space and about science."