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Long Island students contact space station, quiz astronaut

With guidance from a program called ARISS, students

With guidance from a program called ARISS, students at St. Joseph School in Ronkonkoma on May 22, 2017, were able to successfully contact astronaut Jack Fischer on the International Space Station and interview him about his life in space via ham radio. Photo Credit: Newsday / Greg Shemitz

The sound of radio static had never been so suspenseful.

After five attempts via ham radio to reach the International Space Station, a man’s voice suddenly filled the room at a Ronkonkoma school.

“Great to hear you and answer your questions,” declared astronaut Jack Fischer.

With that, a group of parents, students and staff at St. Joseph School collectively sighed in relief.

The school could complete its sweeping, yearlong space project, involving students from pre-K through eighth grade. The ultimate goal: interview a NASA astronaut aboard the orbiting space station, with help from a network of amateur radio broadcasters.

After that agonizing delay, the call went through. For 15 minutes or so that morning on May 22, students peppered Fischer with questions as he drifted miles above Santa Rosa, California.

“You wonder, ‘Oh my gosh, is this going to work?’” Principal Richard Kuntzler said afterward. “There was [an adrenaline] rush that was worth the whole year’s project.”

Shane Bellino, a sixth-grader, asked Fischer what he would tell his pre-astronaut self.

“Great question, Shane. I would just say keep working really hard because it’s worth it in the end. All of that hard work finally paid off,” said Fischer, 43, an Air Force pilot who became an astronaut in 2011. He arrived at the space station in April.

For Bellino of Selden the experience was “life-changing.” He had heard stories about his grandmother helping to build the outer shell of Apollo 11, which took Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon on July 20, 1969.

“I’m never going to forget it,” said Bellino, 12, who now aspires to be an astronaut.

That kind of reaction is even better than what Jennifer Medordi, St. Joseph’s technical director and a ham radio operator, envisioned when she pitched the Amateur Radio on the International Space Station (ARISS) program to school administrators more than a year ago.

“This was something that I wasn’t sure would have that kind of impact, but it did,” she said.

ARISS is an international network of amateur radio societies that use their technology and expertise to connect schools with the space station. Most people use amateur radio frequencies and transmitters to communicate with each other locally or around the world via satellites and antennas. But the technology can also be used to reach space — with some coordination.

ARISS set the contact date and time with NASA. Then, the school called into an ARISS member station in California, where a ham operator was able to link to the space station overhead via radio, White said.

To prepare, Medordi said the school organized “Space Days” every few weeks with age-appropriate activities for every grade, like making astronaut food. “They had no groundwork here so we had to lay it for them,” she said.

Lauren Avilla, 14, of Medford, called her chance to ask Fischer a question a “big honor.”

“How many people can say they’ve spoken to an astronaut?”

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