Out of This World: Spruce Street Students Meet an Astronaut in Space

Seventh grader Jordan Yuen asks astronaut Ricky Arnold what kinds of  "space junk" the space station enounters and how they avoid it. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Jun. 27, 2018

On its last full day of classes, the Spruce Street School had a visitor from space.

“We are ready for the event, Spruce Street School. Welcome to the International Space Station,” announced NASA astronaut Ricky Arnold, appearing via Skype on a large screen in the packed school auditorium. “How do you read me?”

His feet anchored (most of the time) in the gravity-free vessel, the astronaut and former middle school teacher, one of six astronauts aboard the International Space Station, stood ready to answer the middle schoolers prepared questions.

During his 12-minute appearance on June 25, orbiting more than 200 miles above the Earth, Arnold was asked about “the scariest thing that’s happened in space,” and what makes the view up there “so amazing,” and the kinds of “space junk” the astronauts encounter and how they avoid it. (It turns out the debris is monitored from the ground and the astronauts maneuver the space station “like a game of dodgeball” to stay out of its way.)

Science, technology, engineering or math is a good foundation, Arnold explained to a 7th grader seeking advice on becoming an astronaut. “And take advantage of the amazing teachers that surround you for a career and lean on them to help prepare you for your career,” he said.

Principal Nancy Harris once dreamed of such a career, she told the audience before the program began. “As someone who grew up in the age of Sally Ride and Christa McCauliffe and not getting chosen to go to space camp—I did not win that essay contest, but I entered—this was always something I was super excited about.”

Harris noted that making this visit possible required letters of endorsement from elected officials “and even once we were chosen,” she said, “it took so much coordination.”

Shawn Hughey, a video producer and father of three in the school, was crucial to that coordination, which included three earlier run-throughs, one with NASA, and carrying out some complex technical tasks. Throughout the event, he remained on the phone with the space agency, while also directing the questioners with hand signals and capturing the video image of the students that was transmitted back to NASA.

“You saw inspiration in those kids’ faces,” Hughey said, recalling the rapped attention of the students as the astronaut welcomed them. “That made it worth it.

For science teacher Elsa Tippy’s classes, the previous week was Space Week, with visits to the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum and the New York City Center for Aerospace and Applied Mathematics. She brought an indoor planetarium to the school and talked about the history of space exploration. “So they were ready,” she said.

“We’ve been working on this since November, getting the students excited, designing tee shirts, putting out media stuff, contacting people,” Tippy said after the event, which also included a follow-up Q & A with a panel of NASA experts. “To see it all and feel it all come together, it’s so cool!”