With their mission to the International Space Station drawing to a close, astronauts aboard the shuttle Atlantis took time on Saturday to speak with students from NASA Explorer Schools and take their questions about spaceflight.
What, wondered one student, is it like to return to Earth after living in weightlessness for months aboard the station?
“When you come back to Earth, things feel really heavy. I remember taking off my helmet and feeling like I was holding a pickup truck in my hands,” joked Garrett Reisman, who spent three months aboard the station in 2008.
“It felt so incredible. I said, oh my goodness, how am I ever going to brush my teeth. My toothbrush is going to feel like a ton of bricks,” explained Reisman, who returned to the station aboard Atlantis to carry out a pair of spacewalks this week. “It turns out you get really used to gravity again pretty quickly, usually within an hour or so. But it takes awhile to get all your senses back. They won’t let you drive a car usually for about a month. But other than that, after about a month you are pretty much 100 percent.”
NASA’s Explorer Schools project was established in 2003 to improve the quality of education in math and science within under served communities across the nation. Each year, NASA selects 50 elementary and middle schools for a three-year program. At any one time, students from 150 schools are involved, including those from a dozen states who spoke to the astronauts on Saturday.
Atlantis lifted off May 14 with six astronauts on a 12-day mission to the space station. The shuttle crew will depart the station on Sunday after delivering and installing a new Russian research and docking module. During three spacewalks, they installed a new communications antenna and replaced aging batteries in the station’s oldest solar power module.
What, wondered another student, do the astronauts enjoy doing when they have time off.
“Look out the window and watch the Earth go by,” responded Pirs Sellers, who is serving as Atlantis’s lead robotics officer. “It’s just beautiful. We don’t get any free time. So, I have to steal it from the boss, pretty much. But everybody does it. When you get a moment off, you look out the window to see the whole world go by. It’s like a geography lesson. It’s fantastic.”
The station is equipped to house six full time astronauts. NASA’s partners include the space agencies of Canada, Europe, Russia and Japan. With so many nations involved, another student wondered what languages astronauts speak.
“The official main language, the one we all understand is English,” explained Tracy Caldwell Dyson, who has been living aboard the orbiting laboratory since early April. “However, it’s very essential you learn Russian as well.”
Astronauts traveling to and from the station do so aboard Russian Soyuz capsules.
“In the Soyuz spacecraft, we operate solely in Russian,” she said. “But we have a lot of talented, very bright people on board, and some of them know several languages, Japanese, French and German. When you have an International Space Station, there are an almost endless number of languages that could come in handy.”
Atlantis will head back to Earth on Wednesday, touching down at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 8:48 a.m., EDT.