A dozen middle school students held their breaths and waited with expectation to hear the voice of an astronaut in space cut through the static of the radio.
They beamed in their seats in the media center at H.L. Watkins Middle School when Japanese astronaut Takuya Onishi answered their call from the International Space Station as it passed over Palm Beach County. They walked to the microphone and peppered him with questions they practiced three times to make sure they could all get a turn.
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The questions ranged from “If you were left on Mars like in ‘The Martian,’ what would you do?” to “Who or what inspired you to become an astronaut?” His answer to the first: Grow tomatoes like Matt Damon’s character in the movie. Onishi’s amazement at Apollo 13 propelled him to a career in space exploration, he said.
Yanailla Lopez, a seventh grade student from Lake Park who asked the question about getting left in space, said “my heart was about to explode in that moment,” when Onishi’s voice came over the radio.
“It was so exciting that it blew my mind,” she said of when he answered her question.
There was only a roughly 10-minute window in which volunteers from the Jupiter Lighthouse Radio Group could get a signal. The West Palm Beach radio club loaned the school its equipment and expertise to make the connection. One man stayed on the school’s roof to monitor the antenna.
Five teachers also got to ask questions of Onishi after the kids returned to their seats lined up in two rows at the front of the room filled with an audience of parents and community members.
The school was one of 17 nationwide selected by Amateur Radio on the International Space Station to talk to an astronaut, thanks to teacher and radio operator Karen Anderson. She grew up in Houston following the space program and wanted to create the same sense of excitement for students.
“It becomes our challenge to continue to inspire the next generation of dreamers and explorers,” she said after describing they way in which her generation watched America channel fears of the Cold War into space exploration.