Guest Blogger

To Infinity and Beyond: Skyping with Astronauts

“Station, this is Houston.  Are you ready for the event?”

“Houston, this is Station.  We are ready.”

“Wallingford Public Library, this is Mission Control Houston.  Please call Station for a voice check.”

“Station, this is Allison Murphy with Wallingford Public Library.  How do you hear me?”

“We are ready to speak with you.”

Gulp.  When I decided to become a librarian I never, ever thought that I’d be speaking to astronauts.  Especially astronauts who are in outer space! This incredible experience was Wallingford Public Library’s 20-minute Skype session with NASA astronauts.  We were honored to speak with Peggy Whitson and Jack Fischer, who were orbiting the earth on the International Space Station (ISS).  Peggy Whitson is the first female commander of the ISS and on April 24, 2017 she broke the record for the most total days spent in space by any NASA astronaut. On July 6, 2017, over 200 children, adults, and various local dignitaries gathered in our Community Room to witness what might have been one of the most unique events of their lives.   For us, this day celebrated the culmination of months of planning, the centerpiece of an inventive, collaborative learning experience that was beyond our wildest dreams.

How did one humble library end up with a direct line to outer space? We all know that libraries are about sharing books, movies, magazines, music, and more.  In today’s ever-evolving world, libraries have also become a place where people can gather to share ideas, learn about new topics or technology, and expand their skills.  These thoughts were what propelled me to apply to NASA for an In-Flight Education Downlink a year before the actual event occurred.  The application process was quite daunting (it’s NASA, for goodness sakes!) and included ideas for pre- and post- event programs, educational opportunities, and community outreach.  By the time we had checked off all of the details we knew that even if our application wasn’t accepted, we had all of the makings for an incredible summer reading program, so our department committed to making outer space our 2017 summer theme no matter what!

Astronaut in a space suit in front of American flag
Image courtesy of Alyssa Johnson, Wallingford Public Library

In early December we received an email from NASA that said we were accepted for the downlink and our whole staff did a happy dance around the library.  Now it was time to put all of our plans into action!  NASA’s downlink letter of intent asked our library to consider specifics such as an Education Plan Overview, which would describe before, during, and after downlink activities for students.  One of our challenges was that as a public library, we don’t have a captive classroom audience with which we’d share information about NASA and space.  We decided that we would use the library itself, and social media, as learning tools.  By applying to the GSAXcess website, we received ISS artifacts that were showcased in the display cases outside of our Children’s Room.  We also enlarged photos of the astronauts who were currently on the Space Station and provided facts about their backgrounds and what daily life is like in space. No surprise, the kids were most interested in how an astronaut uses the bathroom!

As part of our annual summer reading build-up, all of the children’s librarians visited the eight elementary schools in town.  We talked up the excitement surrounding our summer reading program, and thrilled to tell the classes that they would have a chance to see astronauts in space.  Our presentations included many book talks about science and space titles, facts about the astronauts, as well as a funny space video that one of our librarians made.

Prior to the downlink, we also orchestrated a social media campaign on Facebook and Twitter that pushed out “Did You Know…?” messages about astronaut and Space Station facts a few times a week.  These messages were also posted around the Children’s Room desk and became part of the summer reading challenge questions students could “unlock” by reading a certain number of books and adding them to their online reading log.

The downlink also provided us with the opportunity to incorporate other activities that offered unique learning experiences.  Our monthly STEM programs for third – fifth graders studied the history of flight by making creative paper airplanes and jet propulsion with stomp rockets.  We hired an astronomer to bring his inflatable planetarium to the library and impress hordes of families with an educational and fun star-gazing show.  A glow-in-the-dark story time for younger children got them excited about star gazing and we had an art station with space-related crafts.

Imagescourtesy of Alyssa Johnson, Wallingford Public Library

Through social media, we encouraged patrons to visit the Spot the Station website, where they could sign up to receive notification to watch the Space Station (seen as a steady, white dot) flying over their house.  We also purchased an Orion telescope and outfitted it with a special case and instruction manual so that it could be checked out on a weekly basis and taken home for backyard exploration. When we requested tomato seeds from the Tomatosphere Project, we received a set of seeds that had been harvested on earth, and another that had been harvested in space.  We planted both groups in our indoor “grow station” housed in our makerspace and had fun guessing if one batch would produce a more alien-looking plant than the other.

Image courtesy of Alyssa Johnson, Wallingford Public Library

We were thrown a curve ball when NASA changed the downlink date a few weeks before the event, but the bonus was that we learned we now be speaking to both Jack and Peggy!  During the buildup to the downlink children submitted questions that they wanted to ask the astronauts, but only 20 could be selected to read them to Peggy and Jack.  Some of our favorites included questions about missing family and friends, what did the astronauts bring from home to space, and if they’d seen any aliens.  The team of 20 students ranged from kindergarten – fourth grade and about a week before the event they all came to the library for a practice session and diligently waited in line to practice reading their questions in front of the laptop that would transmit their voice to the Space Station.

The staff of the library caught on to the excitement before the event too, by making Downlink Day tee shirts in our makerspace.  They also loved freebies that NASA sent us, such as pins, posters, bookmarks, and solar eclipse glasses.

On the day of the downlink 200 registered students, family members, and staff gathered in our Community Room, collectively holding our breath and hoping that the technology would work and we’d have a clear connection to space.   We limited the registrants to town residents so that they would have the first opportunity to participate.   A nearby meeting room was designated our overflow space, where over 30 patrons watched the downlink projected through NASA television.

Kids speaking with astronauts in space via Skype
Image courtesy of Alyssa Johnson, Wallingford Public Library

One of the things the NASA production team had warned us about during one of our many planning conference calls was that the speakers on the Space Station are actually quite old, due to the cost of sending anything new to space. In order for the astronauts to hear the students asking questions everyone in the room would need to be silent. With such a large group with kids in grades K-5 we knew this would be a challenge! So as part of our meticulously prepared plan for the event, our team of four children’s librarians included a “practice” run ten minutes before the event was set to start. After explaining the situation, our Head of Children’s Services told a few space jokes, got everyone laughing, and then made a signal for everyone to quiet down.

At the predetermined time, a voice from the Johnson Space Station spoke out over the sound system, and suddenly Peggy and Jack were right there in front of us on the screen, bobbing gracefully without gravity, and ready to chat with the children of Wallingford. Each child stepped up to the microphone when it was their turn, asked their question, and went back to their spot to hear the answer. For 20 minutes over 200 people were spellbound by the awesome astronauts on screen and the work they do every day. Even the smallest kindergarteners were silent and still, until the last question was asked and Jack and Peggy took a (gravity free) bow – then the room erupted with the most enthusiastic applause you can possibly imagine!

The best take-aways from this incredible day?  The first is that we could connect with our community in so many different ways and share the amazing science of space with a population that ranged in age from preschoolers through adults.  Most importantly, though, this day introduced children to two very smart, dedicated, and talented NASA astronauts.  We think it’s inspired quite a few new applicants to a future class for NASA.  As Charlie, a young girl of ten commented, “It’s a really big step because it used to be that women weren’t as important, but now with the female space commander, it means they are really important.”

Even though our downlink was limited to the folks who were at the library, the experience carried a ripple effect to many more through the press coverage.  NPR radio, local television stations and newspapers covered the story and shared our amazing day with their viewers, readers, and listeners.  This widened the scope of who we were able to reach, confirming that the library is a place to have an out-of-this-world experience!  Here’s a short video that shows the highlights of this special day.

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Image courtesy of Sunnie Scarpa

Today’s guest blogger is Allison Murphy. Allison is a Children’s Librarian at Wallingford Public Library in Wallingford, CT. When she’s not singing, dancing and reading in storytime, Allison is trying to spy the International Space Station as it flies over the library. Allison can be reached at amurphy@wallingfordlibrary.org.

Please note that as a guest post, the views expressed here do not represent the official position of ALA or ALSC.

If you’d like to write a guest post for the ALSC Blog, please contact Mary Voors, ALSC Blog manager, at alscblog@gmail.com.

2 comments

  1. Ronald & Eileen Tulloch

    We “never, ever” thought that our little Allison would grow up to be a Children’s Librarian and speak with astronauts on the Space Station! What a thrill it was watching it via live streaming. Wallingford Library, you’re the best!

  2. Andrea Vaughn Johnson

    What an incredible experience for your community! Thank you for sharing your process.

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