ANCHORAGE - Space shuttle Discovery astronauts took a break from their hectic schedule Thursday to talk to Alaska students during a video conference viewed by participants across the state, including some of the most isolated Native communities.
The seven astronauts sat two rows deep, smiling into the camera as welcoming cheers erupted in the Challenger Learning Center in Kenai where local students posed questions to the crew during a live 10-minute interview. Students in several dozen other communities tuned in to watch the exchange on the crew's last full day in space.
The first question, naturally, was directed at shuttle pilot Bill Oefelein of Alaska. The 13-day mission is the first space flight for Oefelein, 41, who began his aviation career in far humbler aircraft, including the floatplanes he flew to favorite fishing spots as a teenager living in Anchorage.
Matthew Morse of Kenai Middle School noted Oefelein's aviation beginnings, then asked what is the best thing about flying the shuttle and being in space?
"The views are spectacular. It's just incredible," he said. "In the first 20 minutes I was up here, I saw lights from cities, thunderstorms from above and a beautiful sunrise."
Each of the astronauts was asked a question or two: What colors of Earth are visible from space? What has been the most exciting and most difficult part of the mission?
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Brent Shelton of Sterling Elementary School wanted to know how long it would take for German astronaut Thomas Reiter to walk regularly and feel normal after coming back to Earth. It was a particularly appropriate question for Reiter, who is returning on the Discovery after living on the international space station since July. On the shuttle he replaces U.S. astronaut Suni Williams, who stayed behind on the orbiting space lab for a six-month stay.
Reiter said it took him a week to recover from a previous mission.
"You know, I hope that it doesn't take too long, maybe within three, four days. I hope not more," he said. "I trained lots and very hard on the space station to realize this time that I can feel normal and walk and hopefully start jogging again. I'm very curious to see how much time it will actually take."
The Discovery crew bid farewell to inhabitants of the international space station Tuesday after an eight-day stay. During their visit, the Discovery crew successfully rewired the orbiting space lab, giving it a permanent power source from a temporary one.
The astronauts also accomplished three spacewalks. Then during a fourth impromptu spacewalk they folded up a stubborn, accordion-like solar panel array that was part of the station's temporary power source - one of the biggest challenges of the mission, they said Thursday. The 612-hour endeavor, conducted without benefit of the ground training they had for the other spacewalks, delayed the shuttle's return to earth, which is now scheduled for today.
The crew's interview with Alaska students ended with a laugh during a discussion about food. Astronaut Joan Higginbotham caught a floating piece of candy then flicked it behind her. With a twist of his neck, Oefelein caught the candy.
"Hey, good catch, Billy," Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor John Williams said from the Challenger Learning Center. Williams then congratulated the crew for a successful mission.
"We especially want to say thank you to Billy O, our own astronaut," he said, prompting applause from the Kenai crowd and Oefelein's crew mates.
In his NASA bio, Oefelein says he still considers Anchorage his hometown. He has visited Alaska schools since becoming an astronaut and has been invited to visit again as part of a distance learning program sponsored by General Communication Inc., an Anchorage-based telecommunications company with statewide services and some customers outside the state.
As part of the same program, GCI sponsored Thursday's shuttle linkup and follow-up video exchange between students across the state and Ralph Grau, a NASA expert at Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Using the same technology, GCI also created a virtual news conference between local reporters and students. Among the students was Jon Ganechuk, a teenager in the Yupik Eskimo village of Manokotak. He didn't actually participate in the dialogue with the shuttle crew, but felt represented as he listened in.
"We feel lucky to be speaking to the astronauts," he said. If given the opportunity, he would have asked "about their experiences being up there and being the first Alaskan to be up there in space."