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Students from Woodridge Middle School in High Ridge got a peek at life in space earlier this month, using a ham radio to talk with an astronaut at the International Space Station.

A dozen students from the Northwest R-1’s middle school took turns Dec. 12 asking the astronaut a handful of questions, while the rest of the student body gathered with them in the school’s gym to listen to the interview.

A screen was set up in the gym so students could see a photo of the astronaut and read interesting facts about the space station.

Students said the experience was both intimidating and inspiring.

“I was overwhelmed and nervous, but it was really cool to talk to someone who is not even on the earth,” said student Olivia Korak, 13, of High Ridge.

Fellow student Andy Campbell, 13, of High Ridge agreed.

“I learned a lot about space. I thought it would be boring, but now I think it would be a fun trip (to the space station). Who wouldn’t?”

Tom Laybourn, 45, of Cedar Hill, who teaches eighth-grade physical science, as well as a class called Science at Work for students in grades six through eight, spearheaded the project, which had been in the works for about a year.

Laybourn already was familiar with ham radios, after the local chapter of the American Radio Relay League provided him with a grant in 2018 to help outfit his class with kits to build radios.

After that, Laybourn got more involved with the ham radio group and got his own radio license. That interest led to the idea of using radios so his students could talk to the crew on the space station.

“I traveled to Hunstville, Ala., and met up with members of AMSAT (the Radio Amateur Satellite Corporation), who build satellites and speak on them with ham radio for fun,” Laybourn said. “They knew teachers that had (spoken to personnel on the space station,) so I thought I’d throw my hat in the ring.”

Laybourn’s proposal beat out dozens of others that asked NASA for access to communicate with the space station.

“There were 60 other schools or organizations that tried for it,” he said.

Woodridge Middle School was one of just 16 applicants, 12 from the U.S., chosen to communicate with the space station crew, Laybourn said.

He said he thought the school was awarded the access because of the number of people who would hear the transmission, about 800, including 600 students, as well as staff and parents.

Laybourn said the school was fortunate to find three experienced radio operators with the equipment and know-how to connect to the space station – George Schindler and Brian Grider, both from the St. Louis and Suburban Radio Club, and Tom Dougherty from AMSAT.

The International Space Station orbits about 250 miles above the earth and travels at about 17,150 miles per hour, or about five miles per second. The reception of the radio waves during the interview were affected by the space station’s movement, so adjustments had to be made to communicate with Luca Parmitano, an Italian engineer and astronaut in the European Astronaut Corps for the European Space Agency, Laybourn said.

During the interview, the space station traveled from high above the Pacific Ocean southwest of Mexico across the United States diagonally, passing directly over the St. Louis area and then off to the East Coast, Laybourn said.

The students had just 10 minutes to ask their questions. Fortunately, Parmitano received a copy of the questions before the interview and was prepared.

Students asked him about day-to-day life on the space station and what it’s like to readjust to earth after returning from space. They also asked him about how reduced or zero gravity affects breathing and what it was like to see earth from outer space.

“I was overwhelmed with emotion the first time I saw the earth (from the space station),” he said.

Students asked the questions quickly and received answers to most of them before the space station began to travel out of range.

Despite the short time spent talking with the astronaut, some students said the conversation will stay with them forever.

“This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, not an everyday thing,” said Billy McCann, 13, of High Ridge.

Woodridge Principal Shannon Umfleet said she was impressed with the students who observed the radio transmission because they were very quiet and well behaved during the whole event.

“I’m so proud of our students, she said. “I can’t say enough. They were wonderful.”

Laybourn said the project was designed to get students to aim high in life.

“The whole goal is to inspire the kids we have in our school and the whole district and show them the tough things they are able to do, to see how much potential they have,” he said.

“I read somewhere that 70 percent of new job openings are related to the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math), Laybourn said. “It’s important for kids to realize, ‘I can be an astronaut, an engineer, a mathematician.’ Ultimately, we are trying to inspire kids.”

Seventh-grade student Miya Clark, 12, got the message.

“I never really expected to do this,” she said. “Now I know not to be scared of things I can do, and I can do this.”

In addition, to building radios, Laybourn’s students have studied Morse code and are using those skills to connect and communicate with other students across the country.

“It keeps a lot of kids engaged,” said Laybourn, who is in his third year at Woodridge Middle School after serving in the U.S. Army for 22 years.

He said he was an infantry officer and served three years in combat.

“It was a phenomenal career,” Laybourn said.

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