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ISS Downlink a success at UVa-Wise

More than 4,000 students from Wise County and Southwest Virginia packed the Convocation Center at The University of Virginia’s College at Wise Thursday morning to talk live with astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

Buses from throughout the region arrived early, and the students and their teachers entered the Convocation Center and browsed through various NASA exhibits, including a moon rock, equipment used by astronauts, and a very special “robonaut” created by a team that includes Big Stone Gap native Adam Sanders. As they took their seats, Leland Melvin, an engineer and NASA astronaut who served on the space shuttle Atlantis as a mission specialist on two flights, reminded the crowd that the youngsters are the next generation of explorers who will make their own marks in the fields of science and mathematics.

Melvin fueled the students’ excitement for space and scientific exploration, but had to pause his presentation for a very important event in which timing was vital. It was time to get the downlink with the International Space Station going. Three large screens broadcast the image of Commander Dan Burbank and Flight Engineer Don Pettit as they sat in a work area of the International Space Station. After a brief audio glitch, the downlink began and the students grew quiet.

“Wise County Public Schools, this is the International Space Station. We are delighted to be with you,” the astronauts said as the students cheered.

Various students who were selected prior to the downlink to ask questions to Burbank and Pettit took the stage one by one to talk to the astronauts. The queries ranged from simple ones about life in orbit to NASA’s decision process regarding space exploration. One student wanted to know if Virginia’s spaceport on Wallops Island would be sending humans to space one day.

Burbank told the students that NASA is moving appropriately, but he made it clear that more exploration is always positive.

“We can’t go to Mars fast enough,” he said.

 Pettit agreed and told the students that it could take from five to eight months to travel to Mars. The months some crewmembers spend on the space station will help prepare humans for the long trip to Mars.

“I’d go to Mars in a heartbeat if the opportunity presents itself,” Pettit said.

Pettit and Burbank said life on the space station is never the same because it changes daily. All astronauts have specific tasks on the space station, but conducting science experiments is one of the best jobs, they said. A major project is to develop better ways to keep humans safe and healthy on space missions, the astronauts added. Improving safety and health readies humans for longer space missions and explorations.

After the question and answer session, Burbank and Pettit proved to the youngsters that they were actually in space by floating around for a few minutes. The students clapped and waved goodbye to Pettit and Burbank and the downlink concluded. However, the program was just getting started.

The younger students giggled in admiration as Melvin continued his presentation and showed a video of him slurping a large water bubble ttat was floating around the cabin during dinner on one of his missions. They giggled more when Melvin was seen coughing.

“I made it to space safely and almost choked on a water bubble and died,” he said.

Anousheh Ansari, an engineer and co-founder and chair of Prodea Systems, told the students about her trip to space in 2006 as the first Iranian-American in space and the first female private space explorer.  She urged the students to work hard in math, science, and engineering so they can help develop technology and programs that will help the world in many ways.

Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell and Delegate Terry Kilgore spoke with the students via Skype from Richmond. The governor spoke of the benefits of a strong education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and said he has placed millions in the proposed state budget to improve education and training in those areas in public schools.

Kilgore, a 1983 graduate of UVa-Wise, said he is “very proud of what is going on at UVa-Wise today.” The governor agreed.

“UVa-Wise programs are just outstanding,” the governor said.

Senator Mark Warner also spoke with the students via video link.

Jack Kennedy, the Wise County Circuit Court clerk and a member of Virginia’s Space Board, spearheaded the ISS Downlink, along with his staff and through the sponsorship of many organizations and individuals. Kennedy was pleased with the event and hopes the ISS will one day host a UVa-Wise science experiment.

“It’s a great day for the college and I am proud to be a UVa-Wise graduate,” Kennedy said. “This is just the beginning, I want to see a UVa-Wise science experiment on the ISS before the end of 2013.”