Shannon King couldn’t contain her excitement.
As the event coordinator at Emblem Academy in the Saugus Union School District, King, also a sixth-grade teacher at the school, was tasked with getting the Eagles ready to soar to space on Monday.
Emblem Academy was one of two lucky schools chosen by NASA to speak with astronauts living aboard the International Space Station as it orbits the Earth, with students given the opportunity to ask questions and learn what it’s like to live in a void.
“Getting to talk to space is amazing,” King said. “It’s very exciting.”
Escaping the morning rain, students, parents and school and district officials were welcomed in the multi-purpose room, decorated to a tee. A model of the solar system hung from the middle of the ceiling while the walls were covered with space-themed drawings on black-as-space paper. Moon Pies and astronaut food — otherwise known as pouches of apple sauce — were being snacked on as everyone waited anxiously for the astronauts to make their appearance.
With some help from the Johnson Space Center in Houston, NASA astronauts Loral O’Hara and Jasmin Moghbeli spent 20 minutes answering questions, ranging from how they eat to how they separate night from day to what they actually do while aboard the station.
Lena, a first-grader, kicked things off by asking how much training it takes to be able to go on the mission to space. Moghbeli said the initial training took two years before the mission-specific training occurred, which took another year and a half.
“We were assigned to this mission and we trained about another year and a half with two missions for this specific mission and what we had to do up here and the spacecraft we were flying,” Moghbeli said. “In between that time, while we’re working, we also did recurrency on our training continuously. So, we’re basically always training.”
Questions continued to pour in as the two astronauts explained how math is the reason that the ISS is able to work the way it does, why sometimes they wear orange and sometimes white — the white suit is made for actually being in space, Moghbeli said — and what to do if there is a fire on the station.
O’Hara told the story of how there was a fire on space station Mir in February 1997 and how, much like on Earth, astronauts have firefighting tools, just in case.
“Much like on Earth, astronauts use safety equipment to fight fires,” O’Hara said. “So, Jaz has a fire extinguisher and I have what’s called a portable breathing apparatus. It’s an oxygen canister with a mask on it. So, if there was a fire on the space station, we would get one of these breathing masks and get this fire extinguisher and use it to fight the fire.”
Another story that O’Hara was happy to talk about was being able to view a solar eclipse from the space station.
“It was pretty neat,” O’Hara said. “We got to see the same kind of crescent shape that people on Earth see, but then from the space station, we also have the vantage point of seeing the moon’s shadow actually passing over Earth.”
Of course, while the astronauts aboard the station — there are currently 11, including Moghbeli and O’Hara, with nine different countries represented — get to witness things that most humans wouldn’t get to, they are also performing experiments meant to help people back home on Earth.
“That’s one of the coolest parts of our job because every day we get to do all these different kinds of science experiments,” O’Hara said. “Everything from 3D printing human heart tissue to manufacturing new materials on the space station to growing plants to studying cell cultures to learn more about how to treat diseases and people and animals on planet Earth. Every day is different and every day is very interesting.”
Research is a major part of the job that astronauts have while living aboard the ISS. According to a NASA news release, these astronauts are helping to prepare NASA for its Artemis missions to explore the moon. The findings from Artemis will then be used to help one day explore Mars.
“Important research and technology investigations taking place aboard the International Space Station benefits people on Earth and lays the groundwork for future exploration,” the release reads. “As part of Artemis, NASA will send astronauts to the moon to prepare for future human exploration of Mars. Inspiring the next generation of explorers – the Artemis Generation – ensures America will continue to lead in space exploration and discovery.”
Santa Clarita City Councilman Jason Gibbs, the parent of two students at Emblem Academy said the event took him back about 10 years ago when he had a chance to visit the Johnson Space Center.
A mechanical engineer in the aerospace industry by trade, Gibbs knows firsthand what it takes to get a rocket off the ground. What he’s interested in learning is what happens once someone exits the Earth’s atmosphere and how people truly live without gravity.
“Getting to see that again was kind of fun just for me, but also to see all the kids who are getting the opportunity to ask these questions and watch in real time as astronauts who are up in the space station giving the answers on the things that they do and what it took to get there,” Gibbs said. “It’s an incredibly important thing and powerful thing, especially for children, to remember that they can achieve what seems to be a dream. So as long as they learn to dream, they can learn to achieve tremendous things. So for me as a young father who had two children there who have to watch that today, it was very special.”
Gibbs said he was impressed with the type of questions that were asked, especially one questioning how people in space are affected differently by UV rays than when on Earth. One question that Gibbs would have asked is how electricity works in space with seemingly nothing to ground the outlets.
“My specialty is in mechanical systems, not in the electrical world,” Gibbs said, “but I’ve always found that fascinating, is how do you have an electrical ground like we do on Earth if you’re up in space?”
To view Monday’s talk with NASA astronauts in full, visit tinyurl.com/5d44fsxr.