Space felt a little closer to home at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables as Miami students participated in a live question and answer downlink with two astronauts currently aboard the International Space Station(ISS).
Five minutes before the downlink was scheduled to begin on April 25, over 250 students from BioTECH@ Richmond Heights High School gazed at a live video screen of NASA astronauts Ricky Arnold and Drew Feustel playfully floating aboard the ISS.
Audio communication had yet to be established, so the botany students sat anxiously, waiting for their chance to ask questions about growing plants in space and what life was like for these modern day explorers.
The anticipation grew when Fairchild Director Carl Lewis spoke into the microphone.
“Station this is Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. How do you hear me?”
He repeated the line three times to no avail.
Just like in the movies when all hope felt lost, the voice of astronaut Ricky Arnold then echoed through the room.
“Coral Gables we hear you loud and clear.”
Students raised their arms and cheered making the scene feel like mission control when the rover Curiosity successfully landed on Mars.
Students at BioTECH have been working with Fairchild’s Growing Beyond Earth Program, a partnership with NASA that helps students select food plants that might be appropriate for growing aboard a spacecraft. A dream for many of these students is seeing a plant they helped develop aid the future of space travel.
Some of the research they have done is already being used by NASA.
“Our school is studying food plants to support research on the ISS,” said Kaira Mccalister, an 11th grader who either wants to become a vet or work with plants to ease overpopulation. “How do scientists on the ground help you do science on the ISS?”
“Food research is very important for us,” replied astronaut Arnold. “Our experiments are actually designed by scientists on the ground. Scientists include professionals, university students, and also students at middle and high schools.”
For Kaira, it was a dream come true to speak to a real life astronaut, even if she doesn’t see herself being one someday.
“It was amazing, I never thought I would be able to talk to one,” she said. “I was shaking; I tried not to show it.”
The downlink lasted only 20 minutes, but that precious time is something these students will always remember.
The astronauts even had time to joke with the students. Both Arnold and Feustel acted like kids themselves, spinning their microphone in zero gravity to the amusement of the crowd. When asked about what food plant he would grow in the international space station, Arnold got some laughs by exclaiming if he had to pick one it would have to be a barbeque plant. He later said that any fresh fruit is something he looks forward to the most.
When asked about the biggest challenge he’s faced, Feustel shared some inspirational advice for high schoolers who lack confidence about their grades or feel lost when it comes to what they want their future to be.
“I would say one of the challenges I overcame were my grades in high school,” Feustel said. “I struggled and it was difficult to stay focused. I went to community college after high school, got my grades up and eventually received my PhD, but my biggest challenge was getting myself through high school and trying to do better as a student.”
Eleventh-grader Matthew Herrick said he took Feustel's words to heart.
Matthew wants to be an astronaut and couldn’t wait to get out the door for the downlink — something he says doesn’t happen during a normal school day.
As someone who struggles with his grades, Matthew said he sometimes feels intimidated looking at all the achievements made by the astronauts. Knowing that Feustel also struggled in school makes him feel nothing's impossible.
"It felt good to know someone wasn’t that great in high school like me,” Matthew said. “They have the same experiences and desires and if I just push past that. It’s just good to know they’re just like me.”