Lessons out of this world

18th November 2005 at 00:00
Pupils in pioneering two-way talk with American astronaut 250 miles above their heads, writes Sophie Kirkham.

An Essex school last week thrilled to have a live link up with an astronaut on the International Space Station, asking him about life in zero gravity and what music he listens to in outer space.

As Commander Bill McArthur sped across the sky at 17,500mph, he spoke to teachers and pupils from Furtherwick Park for nearly ten minutes.

While questions were being relayed to the space station, dozens of children ran outside to wave as they saw it cross the cloudless night sky, 250 miles above them.

"That was the first time a British school has been both linked up to the space station and able to see it go past in the sky, the conditions were just right," said Howard Long of Amateur Radio on the International Space Station, which co-ordinates link ups.

The students, aged between 12 and 16, wanted to know what music Commander McArthur listened to in space (classical, country and the Beatles), whether the astronauts can see tropical storms from the station (yes), and whether a candle flame would burn vertically without gravity (no, the flame is spherical and goes out quickly because of the lack of convection). In the time it took the space station to pass from horizon to horizon, the pupils managed 15 questions about life orbiting the earth, including asking what an average day was like.

"We get up at six o'clock in the morning," said Commander McArthur, whose services in space would cost pound;10,000 an hour if he were hired out commercially. "We have about two hours to clean up and have breakfast, then we start work and we work for six and a half hours.

"In the middle of the day, of course, we break for lunch, we exercise for two and a half hours and then generally at 9.30 at night we are back in bed. Over."

Exercise is either running on a treadmill, using an exercise bike or a special machine that simulates weight lifting in the zero-gravity conditions, he said.

Matthew Ilett, 16, who is hoping to become a plumber, said: "It was absolutely out of this world, there is nothing like it.

"We were talking to someone 250 miles up, and going that speed, you just can't imagine it.

"I find space and the outer universe really interesting, but I am not sure I would want to go there, I am afraid of heights so I think 250 miles up might be a bit much for me."

Devon Brown, 13, said: "It was amazing that we were talking to space because it sounded like he was just outside."

Sam Sanders, 12, said: "I didn't think they would do so much cleaning up there, but they do it in the morning and the evening."

The school was given the go-ahead for the link last year, but the exact time for the exchange - 5.45pm - was only confirmed last month as the space station trajectories were calculated, taking into account any realignments it had to make. It usually orbits the earth 16 times a day and travels from London to Sydney in 40 minutes.

The project was organised with the South Essex Amateur Radio Society which set up an antenna on the roof of the school.

Commander McArthur, 54, from North Carolina in the United States, and the Russian flight engineer, Valery Tokarev, are seven weeks into their six-month stay in space.

As well as routine station maintenance, they will undertake several spacewalks to prepare the outside of the station for future additions to its structure and they will monitor the arrival of a resupply cargo ship in December carrying food, water and fuel.

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