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A call from beyond

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GRAND FORKS — For the 1,000th time in NASA’s history, an amateur radio call was made from Earth to astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

For the first time, that call was placed from North Dakota.

More than 350 students packed into the Memorial Union ballroom at the University of North Dakota on Thursday for an 11-minute radio call with NASA astronaut Tim Kopra, who is orbiting the planet on the space station.

One by one, 16 students ranging from elementary school to graduate school stepped to a microphone and posed questions to the astronaut.

Students wondered how realistic the film and book “The Martian” is, what parts of North Dakota you can see from space, if astronauts feel disconnected from what’s happening on Earth and what advice they have for students who want to be astronauts.

“My advice to some of you who might want to work for NASA or any place that requires a high level of academic achievement is to study very hard and work hard in school,” Kopra told those in attendance. “When you do well in school and learn a lot, it’s like money in the bank. You can always use that for future opportunities.”

The UND Student Amateur Radio Association (SARA) and UND-based North Dakota Space Grant Consortium (NDSGC) teamed up with the Amateur Radio on the International Space Station program to make Thursday’s connection possible.

The call was telebridged through W6SRJ, located at Santa Rosa Junior College in Santa Rosa, Calif., while Kopra was 200 miles above the western coast of the United States.

The event was a year in the making, said Marissa Saad, coordinator for the NDSGC. She said SARA approached her group about partnering together to make an event like this possible.

Along with the call, students participated in a STEM activity day, complete with hands-on science and engineering projects, including a geodome, demonstrations on radios, rockets, robots and racecars, as well as inflatable planets and space suit accessories.

Saad said the event was by far the largest one her organization, which brings science-related activities year-round to kids, has ever done.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime, amazing opportunity,” Saad said. “I never even dreamed that I could talk to an astronaut while they are flying overhead.”

Leading up to the event, members of the Space Grant team and college student volunteers made several visits to classrooms throughout the area to get them excited about the event. These hands-on activities included constructing and launching paper rockets, constructing and testing parachutes and designing and testing neutrally buoyant objects.

Students participating in the event came from all across the area, including Molly Bjorneby, 8, who attends Century Elementary School in Grafton. She delivered the afternoon’s first question by stepping up to the mic and asking: “What do you do for fun on the space station? Over.”

“The space station is a great place to live and work,” Kopra said in response. “A lot of times in our free time, we love to take photographs. Over.”

Molly said she had a good time, even if asking Kopra questions was a little nerve-wracking.

“It was really fun,” she said. “I have never asked an astronaut a question before, so I was more nervous than excited.”

Even after the event had wrapped up, Saad said she still couldn’t believe how great the whole experience was.

“I’m still on cloud nine.”


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