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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 January, 2004, 14:32 GMT
Old boy calls school from orbit
By Laura Smith-Spark
BBC News Online

Michael Foale, Nasa
Astronaut Michael Foale went to school in Kent for four years
An astronaut has spoken to pupils at his former school thanks to a live radio link to outer space.

As the International Space Station (ISS) passed overhead on its orbit, Michael Foale answered questions posed by students at The Kings School, Canterbury.

Head of science Dr Jonathan Allday said they believed it was the first time an astronaut had spoken from space to the school he used to attend.

The eight-minute exercise was said by the US space agency (Nasa) to cost 8,000-a-second in astronaut time - so every moment counted.

The weightlessness, the view, the brightness of the sun - it is nothing that can be simulated
Michael Foale
An amateur radio station with antennas had been used to track the ISS on its 17,000-mph progress round the Earth.

And at 1742 GMT precisely, as the ISS came over the horizon, an anxious wait was concluded when at the radio operators' third attempt, Commander Foale responded with his own call sign.

Five students, selected on the quality of their questions, filed to the microphone one-by-one to speak to the astronaut orbiting 250 miles above.

The 47-year-old, now about half-way through his six-month mission, told them no simulation could prepare him for the beauty of space.

"It's pretty close as far as how to use the equipment but it's nothing like the real thing in terms of the environment," he said.

Astronaut Michael Foale in a previous satellite link-up from the ISS
Foale: "It is a tremendous view"
"The weightlessness, the view, the brightness of the Sun - it is nothing that can be simulated."

Dr Foale said he spent most of his free time looking at the Earth rather than the stars.

"The first time I ever saw the Northern Lights was when I went on a space mission - they are tremendous to see," he said.

He told the schoolchildren that most household items worked the same way as on Earth.

"Except for pencils - if the lead breaks it floats off and that's not so good," he added.

Questions to Dr Foale
When you have free time, do you look down on the Earth or up at the stars? Amanda, 13
Do everyday things like shavers and ink pens work in space? Theodor, 11
Given that you are a role model for pupils, do you have any advice to pass on? Lawrence, 14
Do you think we are entering a crucial phase for manned spaceflight? Alexander, 17
As Nasa Station Science Officer, Dr Foale is working on the ISS with only the mission's flight engineer, Russian cosmonaut Sasha Kaleri, for company.

He studied at The King's School, Canterbury, from 1970 until taking his A levels in 1974, when he left for Cambridge University and eventually America.

The VHF frequency link to ISS was set up by the Nasa-backed group ARISS (Amateur Radio on the International Space Station), which aims to promote connections between students and the space mission.

Dr Allday said the school had picked only five pupils because of the risk the link would break down before everyone had a chance to speak.

Twenty questions were e-mailed to Dr Foale in advance to ensure the optimum use of time.

Despite all the nerves and excitement leading up to it, when you got up to the mike you were able to treat it as quite a normal experience
Student Alexander Shannon
"We didn't want to put pressure on Mike to answer questions briefly so we could get them all in," said Dr Allday.

Dr Foale even had advice for students who saw him as a role model.

"The best thing people can do is pick something they like doing and work at that as well as they possibly can because that way they will always be motivated and get the best out of life," he said.

Alexander Shannon, 17, the winner of the school's Michael Foale Award for achievement in science, was one of the students to ask questions.

He said: "It was amazing - despite all the nerves and excitement leading up to it, when you got up to the mike you were able to treat it as quite a normal experience.

"But at the same time, you were able to hear answers coming from orbit."

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26 Aug 03  |  Science/Nature


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