TRAVERSE CITY — Wide smiles and starry eyes painted the library hall as students gathered ‘round a microphone, ready with carefully rehearsed questions.
The morning’s teacher?
Astronaut and International Space Station resident Nick Hague, who answered their asks via a ham radio set-up thanks to a grant award.
“I was really excited — and at first, the tiniest bit nervous,” said 11-year-old Adeline Depauw, one of several children selected to ask questions during the Friday Traverse Area District Library event.
Hague, a colonel with the U.S. Air Force, became a NASA astronaut in 2013. He joined the ISS crew in March, and has been on board since.
The meticulously organized contact gave a brief window — 10 minutes, maximum — and had to be timed with the ISS’s orbit above Michigan.
“This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the library and these students,” said Matt Wiliford, library marketing and communications manager.
The packed room showed it. Not a chair remained open and late-comers bordered the walls, standing quietly and listening intently.
“We were pretty excited, weren’t we,” local Stephanie Wilson asked her sons, 8-year-old Ronin and 5-year-old Calvin. “We didn’t wanna miss it.”
The boys nodded in eager agreement — Ronin’s favorite part, he said, was listening to Hague answer questions.
“Everything,” he said shyly.
One of the first to grasp the mic, Abe Blackburn, asked Hague how astronauts utilize math.
“Math has everything to do with space,” Hague said, thanking the 7-and-a-half-year-old for the question. “We use math to figure out how much food we need to bring with us.”
Adeline followed, smiling nervously, to ask what tolls living in space takes on the body.
“Everybody is affected differently by microgravity,” Hague said, voice ringing clearly through the ham radio’s speaker.
One major change, he added, is how much blood the body produces — lessened gravity changes how hard the heart must work to pump blood through the body which, in Hague’s case, impacts his vision. Lessened gravity can also affect one’s height.
The ISS was assembled through the course of 35 separate shuttle flights and measures about the size of a football field. It weighs in at more than 10 million pounds.
“Everyone who’s 18 years of age or younger, we’ve been working your entire lives on the International Space Station,” said former NASA astronaut Greg Johnson, who attended the library in the flesh to play host.
The station, built in collaboration between 16 different nations, provides scientific opportunities — allowing NASA researchers insight into how humans can live in space.
“We can study things in space in microgravity that you just can’t study on Earth,” Johnson said. “We are just scratching the surface.”
After Hague signed off, children and audience members had a chance to offer him a bevvy of new questions — including how using the can works in space, which drew a chorus of giggles.
“In zero gravity, it’s a different experience,” Johnson said. “We take it for granted on Earth.”
In fact, he added, every drop of sweat — or urine — is recycled and converted to water.
“Just like the old adage,” Johnson said, “Yesterday’s coffee is tomorrow’s coffee.”
Questions for Hague were chosen via an Ask An Astronaut contest held prior to Friday’s event — judges pored through dozens of entries to choose the best of the best.
“I just thought it would be cool to talk to an astronaut,” said Adeline, a soon-to-be seventh-grader.
And, as she said after the 10-minute Q&A’s end, that thought was right.
“I liked Greg Johnson talking about his astronaut days. That was pretty cool,” Adeline said, eyes bright behind a pair of round, wire-framed glasses.
“I learned about a lot of stuff today,” Abe, a second-grader, added with a smile. “The most interesting one was probably how you go to the bathroom, and how you get taller in space.”
The project started more than six months ago in November 2018, when library staff wrote a grant application for consideration to be in the program. Wiliford heard back in February that TADL was accepted — he isn’t sure how many other organizations applied, but just 13 in the nation made the cut.
From there, staff kept busy putting together an equipment plan to show contact could be made.
The Cherryland Amateur Radio Club, represented Friday by Brook Smith and Joe Erlewein, helped with that.
“This was literally a one-shot deal,” Wiliford said. “We tested everything and were confident we could do it, but until Nick Hague responded on the radio and said ‘I hear you, Traverse City,’ we didn’t know what to expect.”
The planning paid off.
Wiliford hopes the event inspires new interest, and even a new generation of astronauts in children like Abe and Adeline.
He grew up on childhood memories of watching shuttle launches on television.
The space station can be a new point of awe.
“That’s really the goal of this project,” Wiliford said. “It’s meant to create that bridge for young people — to think, ‘Maybe that’s what I want to do someday.’”
“Keep looking up,” Johnson added.
“I was really excited — and at first, the tiniest bit nervous.” 11-year-old Adeline Depauw