As the students of St. Stephen’s Episcopal School in Houston gathered in a classroom one morning this fall, they eagerly awaited the chance to ask an astronaut their special question. But instead of a former astronaut coming into the school to visit with them, they spoke to a current astronaut 254 miles up in space on the International Space Station.

Through Amateur Radio on the International Space Station, the program that connects students to astronauts, 10 children who are in kindergarten through eighth grade were able to make radio contact with NASA astronaut Bob Hines by a high-gain Yagi antenna built by St. Stephen’s teacher Charlie Larrabee.

The questions ranged from inquiring how cold the station was to if the astronauts can eat ramen in space, with one child even asking if it feels cool to do a backflip in space. The answer? Yes, it does.

Such a monumental event takes lots of planning, according to Larrabee, with the preparation for the day taking almost a year to complete. In that time, the students learned about radio and space technology. As only a handful of schools are chosen every six months, it was a big honor to participate in the event.

“I've watched these on YouTube from various schools and those are cool, but actually being in the room was amazing,” Larrabee said. “There’s a sort of tension of you don't know if the contact is going to be made, or how long it's going to last. It was very exciting.”

Unlike most other participating schools, Larrabee decided to build the antenna from scratch by himself. Once it was built, it lived on the roof above the classroom. Due to the nature of how the space station orbits through space, the students only had 10 minutes to ask their questions.

“It just felt like the impact of the event would be much more meaningful,” Larrabee said. “I was actually controlling the radio with my knee. So when I push my knee down on the pedal, that's what starts the radio transmitting and the kids can start talking. We're kind of collaborating.”

Having the opportunity to participate in this event goes hand in hand with the extensive STEM program offered by the school. Students are able to work on various projects including robotics, coding, 3D design, electronics and woodshop.

“It’s a really, really awesome community building activity in addition to the makerspace learning that the kids are doing,” Larrabee said.

For students and parents who are interested in admission to St. Stephen’s, the school now has applications open for the 2023-24 school year.

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