Downlink Tips From Up Above

Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger floating on the International Space Station

In preparation for tomorrow’s downlink interview with the STS-133 crew we thought it would be fun to talk to an astronaut who’s participated in the in-flight conversations with students and hear what the experience is like for the astronauts. We know what it’s like for students, but what do astronauts think about talking with students from space?

So we asked astronaut Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger, who I’ve blogged about before. Dottie was a mission specialist on the STS-131 space shuttle mission in 2010. During the mission she participated in two education downlinks: one with more than 1,000 students gathered at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey Bay, Calif., and one with students in Gibsonville, N.C., from the auditorium at Eastern Guilford High School.

One of the first things I asked Dottie was to compare the experience of talking to students while standing flat-footed at their school and talking to them with feet floating in the air. How is that experience different for the astronaut being interviewed? Dottie said the space environment lends the conversation to more improvisational moments. “When you’re on Earth and you’re trying to talk about space, it’s hard to make the demonstrations because you’re not in 0 g and you’re in the 1 g environment. I think you can still make (a) great impact (on Earth). It’s just maybe you want to show some clips of video or show some pictures of people that are working or doing things in space to illustrate what you’re trying to talk about. …

“Having now been in space it’s a lot easier to be excited when you’re there in space. I’m always excited about our space program, but I just think when you’re there floating around you don’t even have to work at the excitement energy, while here (on Earth) you might put a little more effort. … You can’t help but be excited while you’re in space!”

We talked about if any moments stood out from either of the in-flight downlinks in which Dottie participated. “I remember a student asking what type of science we were doing in space, and (I) just tried to explain to them there is all the different spectrums of science from your physical and chemical sciences, to engineering, to astronomy, especially with AMS (Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer) coming, but also there are some other astronomy payloads that are up there, to biological on humans, plants and animals, so that all of the sciences that they learn in school happen on the International Space Station, and it really is a science lab.

“It’s hard to tell students about all those payloads because a lot of the investigations are at a post-graduate level but wanting to get them interested in these different sciences that they’re going to have the opportunity to study in school so I remember trying to think ‘how could I put that into something that they know right now at middle school (level)’ and put it into their words because they haven’t maybe even been exposed to some of these sciences yet, so that’s hard. That was a hard question for me!

“And then of course the easier questions that are always fun are what are your favorite foods or what are you eating in space, how do you sleep there. We got those on both of the downlinks we did.”

Dottie said she tried to make the downlink personal to the students and the school they were talking with. She wanted to make a personal connection with them so they would know that the astronauts were interested in them too and not focused only on answering their question.

“We knew before we were flying who we were going to be talking to, and so while I was quarantined I just got some information about the high school so we could kind of give a little shout-out to the school and know their mascot, maybe know the names of a couple of the teachers that were going to be there just so the kids see that you’re trying to be invested in them too,” Dottie said. “When we were on orbit and actually doing (the downlink), since it is kids, we tried to also show that we were having a lot of fun up there because if you just answer the question, if you just tuck you feet under a handrail and look like you’re standing there then the kids don’t really understand that you’re in space. So Clay (Anderson) hung upside down from one area, and we did some flips and Dex (Commander Alan Poindexter) was throwing food to us, and so we were just trying to make it interactive but also just demonstrate ‘hey, we’re really in space.’”

Dottie had one piece of advice for me tomorrow: speak clearly into the phone. “It was helpful to have that list of questions because sometimes it’s hard to understand the kids. When they get to the mic they get excited or they get nervous or maybe they get too close to the mic. A couple of the questions were actually difficult to understand. Some kids came through much more clearly then others. I wanted to be able to answer the question with the student’s name in the question and make sure I was answering the right type of question. So I think it will be easier for you guys because you’ll speak very clear, and if there’s any miscommunication with the question you can repeat it. It’s harder to get kids (to repeat it) because then they move away from the mic. They ask their question then they move away, they don’t even wait for the answer, and part of that is just the nature of the (event). I think it will be good for your event. I think you’ll have an easier time.”

We closed out our talk with talking about the importance of in-flight education downlinks for inspiring and exciting students about space and human spaceflight. “They are definitely important events,” Dottie said. “We do, when we’re on orbit, take a couple of minutes to collect up some items to make demonstrations. We take them seriously too, and we get to have some fun and we appreciate that too. Of course we were all once their age so we want to inspire them. It’s a fun event for us too.”