Q: What's the best way to learn how astronauts handle the adventure of space travel?
A: Call the International Space Station and ask them.
That's exactly what Pinellas County middle and high school students did Thursday, with a communications link provided by NASA and help from the Science Center of Pinellas and hundreds of other kids who came to watch.
As the space station orbited 220 miles above Earth, excited students gathered in the science center's auditorium and about 15 got to ask three U.S. astronauts questions.
"Oh, my gosh, it was mind-blowing, it really was," Donisha Pate, a 15-year-old sophomore at St. Petersburg Collegiate High, said after asking a question about robotics. "Not everyone gets this opportunity, this chance to be able to talk to someone in outer space."
Cody Kronz, a seventh-grader at Meadowlawn Middle, thought up his question while watching a lot of things blow up on the Military Channel. Could you have an explosion in space, even though there's no oxygen?
Astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson, who has a doctorate in chemistry, gave him the answer from on board the space station: For an explosion, you need ignition, a fuel source and an oxidizer such as oxygen. Dyson, 41, said without all of those things, an explosion can't happen. But, Dyson noted, there is oxygen on the space station, so there is at least the potential.
Questions are at the heart of science, so Thursday's event was all about asking them.
The 300-some students and others quizzed two former astronauts who came to visit the science center in person. The students asked more questions to science educators who conducted demonstrations. And even more to the astronauts in space.
"Have I ever been attacked by a meteor shower? No," said retired astronaut Bob Springer, who flew aboard space shuttles in 1989 and 1990 and came to the science center on Thursday to speak to several groups of students. But lest anyone think it was a bad question, he added, "We do worry about that."
The science center contacted NASA over a year ago with the hope of establishing a communications link with the space station under a special program, and NASA agreed. But that was just the beginning.
Public and private schools let students know last year that they could participate if they completed lesson plans in marine biology and other sciences. Several worked on it over summer vacation. Those who completed the work were allowed to submit questions. The center rated the questions and assembled a group of students.
Charissa Lenis, 12, a seventh-grader at Admiral Farragut Academy, wanted to know if the astronauts could see the gulf oil spill from the space station.
Yes, said astronaut Shannon Walker, 45. When the oil was still prevalent and the angle was just right, "we could see the oil on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. It was quite a sight to see."
Donisha, the sophomore who asked about robotics, likes her regular school classes so much that she almost didn't want to come to the science center event on Thursday, her mother said.
But she was glad she did, and said it completely changed her outlook on space travel. She said she had images in her mind of astronauts bouncing on the moon, but hadn't realized how much research and engineering they do also.
"They're making history, which is mind-blowing," Donisha said.
Curtis Krueger can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8232.