I Dare You to Dream: USU Partners with NASA and Sen. Orrin Hatch for Live Feed from Space
Utah State University’s GEAR UP program and Space Dynamics Laboratory partnered with U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch and NASA to provide a live conversation between astronauts currently aboard the International Space Station and more than 200 students from across Utah on Friday May 19.
Orbiting approximately 250 miles above Earth, astronauts Peggy Whitson and Colonel Jack Fisher answered questions from middle and high school students during a live downlink transmission where students interacted in real time with the astronauts.
As Whitson and Fischer floated inside a space module filled with more wires and gadgets than the inside of a computer, the excitement in the air was palpable as students waited to talk with them. Although a few were shy and couldn't wait to scurry away, most were beaming with delight and open-mouthed wonder.
"If you could give advice to your 17-year-old self, what would it be?" asked Jason Shepherd, a student from Wendover High School.
Jack Fischer, an American test pilot, a Colonel in the U.S. Air Force and NASA astronaut, replied with the advice his father gave him:
"I dare you to dream—the 'dream' part is finding the passion that lights a fire in your soul. You have to define that for yourself. The 'I dare you' part is the hard work; no one will give it to you. If you don't work really, really hard, it's not going to happen. So define that dream... and then follow it with all you got!"
Dr. Peggy Whitson is a biochemistry researcher and NASA astronaut—she holds the record for the most hours spent in space of any American astronaut in history. Devin Ball with the Cache Makers STEM 4-H club asked her what the astronauts do in their free time.
“Looking out the window never gets boring!” she said. “We go around the Earth 16 times in a day, traveling at 17,500 miles an hour, we see a sunrise and a sunset every 45 minutes.”
Whitson is the commander of Expedition 51, and their five-person crew includes one French and two Russian astronauts. Fischer offered details about Whitson’s role as commander when he was asked about how they handle emergencies in space.
The main emergencies the astronauts train for are fire, rapid de-pressurization (a hole in the station) and a toxic atmosphere caused by the ammonia they use for cooling. “We work most of the time as a team, but in an emergency, you need to have a boss, and that’s our resident space-ninja Peggy, telling us what we need to do and where we need to go so that we can all get home safely.”
Fischer also told the students about a few of the science experiments being conducted on board: “We can grow perfect crystals, so we can look at virology and immunology. One experiment involves ways to create lightweight and stronger alloys….This place and what goes on here is changing humanity for the better.”
Zayhetzi Nunez, a student at InTech High School, asked, "What weird stuff have you seen in space?" As Whitson laughingly pointed at Fischer, he replied, "Everything! Sitting on the ceiling, eating pudding squeezed out onto your spoon like a gelatinous mountain—there are so many different opportunities for you to stretch your mind, re-define reality, and just grow as a human—I absolutely love this place."
When Benjamin Huenemann from InTech High School asked if they play musical instruments in space, Thomas Pesquet, a French astronaut and aerospace engineer, floated through the space module while perfectly playing a melody on his saxophone, much to the delight of the students, who laughed and cheered.
Another highlight was watching Fischer squeeze fruit punch out of a packet where it formed into balls as he drank it right out of the air. These spacewalkers clearly enjoyed entertaining, educating, and inspiring their audience.
“It’s not every day you get to talk to an astronaut,” said Adam Cox, a student at North Sanpete Middle School. “You think adults are all business—but I could see today how much fun the astronauts were having.”
“It was life-changing for these students,” said Heather Hafen, a site coordinator with USU’s Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) program. She became emotional as she spoke about the impact of this event. “Many of these students are economically disadvantaged, and to witness this today changes how they see themselves. They have now seen up close that there is a whole world out there—they can reach out and do more than they have imagined.”
When asked if her perspective had changed after this event, Siri Huntington, a North Sanpete student said, “I realized today that if I really work hard, I can actually achieve my dreams.”
“I learned about taking the difficult road instead of the easy road,” said Ashley Ortiz, also from North Sanpete. “The easy road might get it done faster, but it doesn’t pay off in the same way.”
These astronauts sacrifice time away from Earth and loved ones, but they also take great risks with their health. They experience bone and muscle loss while at the same time studying the effects of long-term exposure of space on the human body.
Yet they do not appear to focus on the sacrifice they’re making—rather, they are humbled and inspired by the privilege of what they get to do. They fought for this honor through long years of study and training that most could not endure.
The 20-minute Earth-to-space call was aired live on NASA Television and NASA’s website. All participating students came from middle schools and high schools throughout Utah and are focusing their education on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM).
“The importance of STEM education in Utah, and across our nation, is highlighted by the amazing job NASA does to consistently engage with students at an early age,” said Beth Foley, dean of USU’s Emma Eccles Jones College of Education & Human Services. “We are grateful for the leadership of both Senator Hatch and NASA who have enabled us to reach STEM students throughout Utah with this unique opportunity to ask questions of Dr. Whitson and Colonel Fisher.”
“Utah State is one of the leading space-grant universities,” said Senator Hatch. “It’s an honor that our state was chosen to host this special event, which will only strengthen the natural partnership between Utah’s STEM workforce and the U.S. space program.”
GEAR UP is a federally funded grant program whose goal is to increase college awareness for low-income students and their families and to help students develop the skills and preparation necessary to pursue education after high school.
“There are few better ways for students to become excited about STEM education than talking to, and watching, astronauts who are currently in orbit,” said Niel Holt, director of the USU Space Dynamics Laboratory (SDL). “SDL is honored to work with NASA on current programs and on numerous missions over the past five decades. It is critical that we energize the next generation of engineers and scientists so that we can continue to seek understanding of the origins, evolution, and destiny of the universe.”