The audience watches on as Essex Heights Primary School students interview an astronaut on the International Space Station. Photo: Wayne TaylorThere is a famous scene from The Right Stuff, the movie about the first astronauts, where the entire world sits on the edge of its seat, waiting for word from John Glenn on his overheated re-entry to Earth, NASA control calling to him, time and again. Everybody waiting.

Such a scene played out on Friday night at Essex Heights Primary School in Mount Waverley. About 300 parents and children were hunched forward in the school hall, as a amateur radio operator in Queensland attempted to provide a hook-up between the International Space Station and 11 young students who were waiting to ask question of Flight Engineer Jeff Williams.

“Calling MA 1SS, MA 1SS … this is five Zulu … copy here.”

After a couple of callouts, there came the same burst of static that in 1960s television news reports delivered a novel thrill to a world-wide audience whose mind was blown at the very idea that this rather ugly sound was coming down from space. The world soon became jaded – but here there was some of that old-time excitement and emotion.

Soon enough, Jeff Williams – who has spent more than a year in space over three missions, including a 2000 Shuttle mission to do construction work on the space station – could be heard, like a ghost under water. And the questions began.

“My name is Jake. What different jobs do you do on the space station. Over?”

At this point, the connection wasn’t great and only the words “maintenance on the space station” could be easily made out. Still, Jake looked pleased.

“My name is Natalie. Do you prefer gravity or zero gravity? And why? Over.”

Clearer now: “Well, I certainly love zero gravity but I wouldn’t want to live in it for the rest of my life…”

The children, aged 8 to 12, had two questions each – having been selected from a pool of applicants. The idea was to ask their first question, and give someone else a turn, hoping the connection would last long enough to ask their second question.

“My name is Ava. How long does it take to get used to gravity again when you’re back on Earth? Over.”

A few days to recover his balance. “But of course the force of gravity causes your muscles to work extra hard, and that takes a bit more than a month to recover. Over.”

Thomas wanted to know why the space station doesn’t run out of oxygen. Answer: “Good question Thomas… we have a machine that makes new oxygen out of water.”

There were babies and small children being nursed as this went on. Weirdly, none of them cried or blurted complaint; they too seemed to be caught in the spell.

This conversation – which lasted long enough for all the questions to be asked – took 10 months to set up, the work of the school’s science co-ordinator, Jenny Austin. While Googling educational opportunities in science, she came across a NASA program called ARISS (Amateur Radio on the International Space Station) which is facilitated by a global network of amateur radio buffs.

By the time Jeff Williams signed off, the ISS had swung north-easterly and was up on the equator, way off the coast of Queensland. Still, everyone sat there quietly, they could be taken into space for a few moments more.

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