Out-of-this-world chat at SGS

Students at a local junior high school got an out-of-this-world experience this week.

Nearly 180 students at Sir George Simpson Junior High School gathered in their cafeteria Tuesday afternoon to listen in as the school was connected to the International Space Station and some of them had a chance to ask questions of Canadian astronaut and station commander Chris Hadfield via a ham radio connection.

Faith Gault, a Grade 7 student at Sir George Simpson Junior High, uses a cellphone to ask a question to Canadian astronaut and International Space Station commander Chris Hadfield on Tuesday afternoon. (GLENN COOK, St. Albert Leader)

Faith Gault, a Grade 7 student at Sir George Simpson Junior High, uses a cellphone to ask a question to Canadian astronaut and International Space Station commander Chris Hadfield on Tuesday afternoon. (GLENN COOK, St. Albert Leader)

The questions ranged from the effects of pressure in space to what Hadfield would bring back with him if he had the chance. One student even asked how Hadfield was spreading Canadian culture among his fellow astronauts.

“I’ve been playing Canadian folk music,” Hadfield replied. “I’ve been playing Stompin’ Tom Connors and music from a bunch of different writers, [like] Gordon Lightfoot.”

Students managed to get in about eight questions in English, French and even Russian.

“It was pretty cool,” said Grade 9 student Charlea Erickson. “It was very interesting, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Grade 8 student Caleb Sorenson asked Hadfield what he would be doing for a living if he wasn’t an astronaut. The answer was a combination of university professor and test pilot, which didn’t surprise Sorenson.

Commander Chris Hadfield. (Sun Media News Services)

Commander Chris Hadfield. (Sun Media News Services)

“I thought he was going to [say he’d] be a pilot,” he said.

The chat almost didn’t launch, though, as technical problems and atmospheric static held things up past the scheduled 2 p.m. start time.

But when Hadfield’s voice came over the cafeteria speakers, there was relief all around.

“We had done two separate dry runs on this — running the lines, testing the cellphones, calling in, checking the audio. We were like, we’re good,” said teacher Tony Rafaat, who organized the chat. “We thought maybe it was on the other end. … When we had the fix, which was a cellphone, it was like, hallelujah.”

Rafaat is an amateur radio operator, and heard about the chance to link up with Hadfield through the amateur radio community in Alberta.

“I wrote up our application and submitted it, and I think they liked our combination of bilingualism — or trilingualism — at the school, and maybe the fact that I had my amateur radio license,” he said. “Who knows — maybe someone put in a good word for us.”

Space science is part of the Grade 9 curriculum, so Rafaat is hoping that the students came away from the chat more enthused about that subject.

“Science is exciting, and the sky is not the limit, as Chris Hadfield says,” he said. “We can reach out with our technology — with VHF radio, old school — and make contact with a craft that’s going 25,000 kilometres an hour. What I want them to take away is that [science] is exciting and it is doable.”

— GLENN COOK, St. Albert Leader