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Iqaluit says ullaakkut to outer space
Students chat with American astronaut orbiting Earth

Casey Lessard
Northern News Services
Published Thursday, February 9, 2012

Not many people can say they've talked to astronauts orbiting Earth, but 14 Inuksuk High School students spoke to one directly during a nine-minute audio link with the International Space Station Feb. 8.

NNSL photo/graphic

Amateur Radio on the International Space Station volunteer Steve McFarlane performs a robotics display ahead of a link with the space station and astronaut Donald Pettit at Inuksuk High School in Iqaluit Feb. 8. - Casey Lessard/NNSL photo

"It was just unbelievable," said principal Terry Young. "All of a sudden, we were connected to the space station and you could hear a pin drop once we got connected. The students were all so attentive and appreciative."

An audience of hundreds of students, teachers, and dignitaries listened as the students asked questions of American astronaut Donald Pettit as he passed over the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii. The 56-year-old has been on the International Space Station since leaving Earth Dec. 21, 2011 on a Soyuz rocket launched from Baikonur, Kazakhstan.

"I thought it would be cool to talk to an astronaut who was actually out in space," said Grade 9 student Tyler Courtney, who asked the first question and "It was pretty cool."

An aspiring mechanic, Courtney wanted to know how to get involved in the space program.

"It's very easy to get involved in the space program: you have to put in an application," Pettit said to laughter. "Nobody comes and knocks on your door and says, 'Come be an astronaut.' You have to take the first step. After you graduate college, it's a question of knocking on NASA's door until they let you in."

Pettit's typical working day is full to maximize the precious time astronauts are in space.

"We get up at 5:30 or 6 each morning and start working at 7," he told Annie Buscemi. "We work until 7 in the evening and then have a couple of hours of off-duty time before we go to bed."

That said, his 'day' is far from normal as the station speeds around the planet.

"We work a normal Earth working day kind of environment, but we see 16 sunrises and sunsets a day. So sometimes you'll look out the window and it will be bright, and sometimes you'll look out and it will be dark."

The astronauts focus on two types of research, typically studying the biological sciences, with the crew as the lab animals, and the physical sciences, performing physics, chemistry, combustion and crystal growth experiments.

"Space offers an environment that's impossible to duplicate on Earth," he said to a question from Anika Bychok.

As somewhat of a lab animal himself, he saw an immediate change in his biology upon arrival in space.

"The immediate effect is that fluid shifts in your body and your face gets all puffy," he told Izaac Wilman, who wanted to know the effects of gravity. "You look like a chipmunk with big, puffy cheeks."

As demonstrated in a pre-recorded video, without gravity, water is hard to control as it flows away from the source. That means personal hygiene is a challenge: Pettit and his colleagues go without bathing for six months at a time.

"However, we can get a wet towel and wipe ourselves down, and you can shave with an electric razor or with the old shaving cream and a safety razor," he told Sheila Papatsie.

The lack of gravity also makes waste disposal an issue.

"We have our toilet system, which is a bucket that accumulates waste," he told Daniel Kootoo, "and then we have a hose that you can urinate into and it's hooked up to a blower and sucks all of the urine into the hose, and it goes through a separator and into a tank."

When full, the bucket and tank are loaded along with airtight food garbage bags onto a vehicle that burns up in the atmosphere upon re-entry, he said.

Pettit and the other astronauts face these challenges for six months, but "the hardest part is being away from your family," he told Mary Omole. The Grade 9 student would like to follow in Pettit's footsteps.

"Yeah, I think it would be amazing," Omole said. "It would be so cool."

The link ended during the response to the 14th of 20 planned questions, so Julia MacDonald didn't get to ask Pettit if he thought there was life beyond Earth.

"I think the universe is too big to think there's nothing else out there," she said. "It was a disappointment (to miss her turn), but I was kind of nervous, so it was a relief, too."

For Premier Eva Aariak, who was listening to the conversation, Pettit's experience can encourage Nunavut's students.

"The Amateur Radio on the International Space Station program shows us what can be reached and achieved by studying science, technology, engineering and math," she said. "Success in school will provide you with unlimited possibilities. You will have the power to pursue work that is interesting and meaningful to you."

This is Pettit's second long-term mission on the space station, and he will return to Earth in May.

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