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Area students take virtual trip to International Space Station at event in Gig Harbor

London Coats joins other Peninsula and South Kitsap school district students on stage to ask astronaut Mark Vande Hei questions Tuesday morning at Galaxy Theatre in Gig Harbor.
London Coats joins other Peninsula and South Kitsap school district students on stage to ask astronaut Mark Vande Hei questions Tuesday morning at Galaxy Theatre in Gig Harbor. Courtesy

The power of modern streaming services and video technology gave local students the chance to receive an out-of-this-world experience by talking with astronauts currently serving on the International Space Station, more than 400 miles above the Earth.

Middle school and high school students from the Peninsula and South Kitsap school districts gathered Tuesday morning at Galaxy Theatre in Gig Harbor to witness a live stream tour of the International Space Station, ask NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei questions and listen to various guest speakers on the importance of STEM learning. .

The program was sponsored by West Sound STEM Network of Washington, which invited select students from nearby school districts to participate in the event.

Across the nine participating districts, students had been preparing for the event by studying the space station, astronaut biographies, and the current research and activities happening aboard. While more than 1,000 students were invited, only a select few were chosen to go on stage and ask Vande Hei questions about life and research in space.

“My question is how do you clean the outside of the ISS?” a student named Lukas asked Vande Hei.

Vande Hei said because of how sterile the environment of space is, the ISS does not need to be cleaned.

Other students asked how the ISS takes evasive action against space junk (it hasn’t run into any), what research was currently being worked on that would have a large impact on today’s younger generations (work on combustion engines, Vande Hei said), what he misses most on Earth (his family, the feel of sunshine and wind) and one student asked how being in the “endless void of space” feels.

“There was nothing between me and the Earth but my space suite,” Vande Hei said about a recent spacewalk he performed. “Away from the bright light of Earth you can see all the stars and nothing. It’s a great deal of immensity.”

Students who were selected by West Sound STEM to get up and speak submitted their questions to their science teachers and were chosen based on the thoughtfulness of their questions and their school performance.

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London Coats, a student at Kopachuck Middle School, was given the chance to ask astronaut Mark Vande Hei a question during a live-stream from the International Space Station on Tuesday at Galaxy Theatre in Gig Harbor. Alexa Shanafelt Courtesy

“I thought he was really cool,” said Emma Krueger, a sixth-grader at Harbor Ridge Elementary. She asked Vande Hei about what type of research from ISS might have the biggest impact on her generation.

“They go up there for a reason,” she said. “I wanted to learn more about what they were doing and how it is going to affect us.”

Krueger said she wants to be an environmental engineer when she is older and to find ways to protect nature.

“I liked all the guest speakers and how they talked about leadership,” she said. “I like how we are the next generation of scientists, leaders and engineers.”

Students also watched a live video from U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, appearing from his office in Washington D.C. He discussed local Kitsap scientist, Richard Gordon.

“Kids around the country like Richard Gordon did everything they could to get us to the moon,” Kilmer said. “And he was one of the lucky, hardworking people to become an astronaut. He was one of the first people to see the Earth from space. He got to do all of this because like you, he worked hard. Anyone of you could be the next Richard Gordon, cause in your lifetime, we are going to go to Mars.”

Students also heard from U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Gary Mayes, who also discussed Gordon’s legacy in the area. Mayes talked about the importance of science, engineering and math studies with students in the audience.

“Science, engineering and math can help the Navy accomplish its missions,” Mayes said. “The Department of Defense is the largest employer of science and engineering majors. A tremendous amount of technology goes into making your Navy ready for action.”

Mayes spoke in hopes of inspiring students to continue studies in STEM fields for future careers with government organizations.

Peninsula School District Assistant Superintendent Dan Gregory was proud to see his students on stage asking questions.

“It just was enlightening to see the depth of thought our students have developed,” Gregory said. “We try to be a big part of events like this. We try to provide every opportunity to our students.”

The school district received a large response from students interested in participating in the live broadcast with Vande Hei, Gregory said.

“It’s great to know that STEM is very much alive in the Peninsula School District,” he said.

Danielle Chastaine: 253-358-4155, @gateway_danie

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