Taking a call from the heavens

All Saints Academy students talk with U.S. astronaut aboard International Space Station


MIDDLETOWN — For the families of All Saints Academy, Middletown, technology is a way of life. The diocesan STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art + Design, Math) school combines an emphasis on STEM subjects and the arts with a traditional Catholic education, fostering big dreams in fields that could take students around the world, or even to outer space.

Students got an early taste of those dreams on Friday when, following a year of hard work and with support from the local community, they contacted the International Space Station via ham radio and held a live chat with American astronaut Jeff Williams.

“We’re thrilled to send our questions into space today to be answered by astronaut Jeff Williams,” said school Principal Anita Brouse. Williams, who once attended the Naval War College in Newport, boarded the ISS in March and was pre-scheduled to answer the students’ call.

More than a year ago, All Saints Academy learned it was one of six schools in the United States chosen to participate in Amateur Radio on the International Space Station (ARISS), an educational initiative to foster conversations between students and astronauts working in space. The opportunity arose out of growing interest in the school’s Ham Radio Club, moderated by parent volunteer Mike Cullen.

“It exceeded my expectations. There was a strong level of community interest at the very end,” said Cullen. “It’s really obvious that the students have really been opened up to it.”

Preparation for the space chat involved several months of work on the part of students and administrators, as well as community organizations like the Newport County Radio Club and WADK radio station. Students assisted Cullen in installing an antenna on the school roof, practiced their ham radio skills and learned how to minimize risks to the call, knowing they would only have a brief 10-minute window during which the space station would be in range.

On the day of the event, several hundred people prepared to listen to a broadcast of the space chat from St. Lucy’s Church, while a smaller group watched from the school auditorium, where the actual contact would take place. At exactly 12:43 p.m., Paula Peréz, an eighth grade student and licensed ham radio operator, initiated the call.

“NA1SS, NA1SS, this is N1ASA, N1ASA calling for our scheduled ARISS contact, over,” said Peréz, using the school’s ham radio call signal to reach out to the ISS.

Even after months of preparation, the school had no way to guarantee the call, as the smallest change in weather and other factors could seriously impact signal strength. The audience sat on the edge of their chairs as Peréz repeated her message, hearing only static in return for more than a minute. Finally, after seven attempts, the students heard a voice crackling over the radio.

“N1ASA, this is NA1SS, I can read you loud and clear, over,” said Williams, to cheers from the audience.

After the initial introductions, students quickly ran through a number of questions they had prepared in advance. Chanelle Butler, an eighth-grader at All Saints Academy, started the conversation with a question about the astronaut’s well-being.

“How do you calm yourself if you feel a little claustrophobic?” she asked.

“I don’t usually feel claustrophobic, I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced that up here, it would be difficult to calm yourself and I would probably be in the wrong job, over,” he responded, eliciting a laugh from the crowd.

Other questions included how the astronauts celebrate holidays (around the table, with a meal), how they cut their hair (with a vacuum cleaner on hand to catch the clippings) and what Williams does for fun (take pictures of Earth). Riley Letendre, a sixth-grader at All Saints, asked how the astronauts keep up with their religious practices and obligations in space.

“Well, I keep up with mine in the same way I do on the ground on Earth,” said Williams. “Usually on the weekends I’ll spend some time in my Bible and do the things that I normally do on Earth, over.”

Several weeks ago, All Saints Academy had put out a call for possible questions to students throughout Rhode Island, inviting the winners to attend and participate in the event. In all, 24 students from eight schools had the opportunity to ask questions, ranging in age from eighth graders down to pre-Kindergartener Jack Vanak, who needed help asking his question about what kind of food Williams looks forward to eating when he goes home.

“Well, Jack, my wife is a great cook, so I want whatever she wants to make me when I get home, over,” responded Williams.

After about 10 minutes, Peréz took the microphone and thanked Williams for the conversation. As the call faded out, the gathered parents, faculty and friends burst into applause, congratulating the school on the successful result of months of hard work.

“I’m so happy for all of them. I was so worried that all 24 wouldn’t get to ask their questions,” said Brouse.

Daniel Ferris, superintendent of schools for the diocese, also congratulated the students.

“Going back to childhood, anything that has to do with space — outer space — just fuels us and inspires us,” he said. “This is just amazing.”

For the students who made the call, the space chat was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and the first of its kind in Rhode Island.

“I feel really proud now that I got the opportunity to do this,” said Peréz. “I’m really excited to tell all my friends that I got to speak to an astronaut.”

“It was kind of nerve-racking,” said Joey Aslakson, a seventh-grader who asked a question about Williams’s favorite space food. “I didn’t expect that I would be here asking a question of an astronaut in space.”

Bob Beatty, a member of the Newport County Radio Club who provided technical support on the day of the event and met with students several times prior to help prepare them for the ham radio contact, said he was proud of how the students had progressed.

“You’ve got all these different skills coming together. It’s a way to teach the kids how to pull off something bigger than you,” he said. He also said he was glad one of the students had asked about religious practices in space.

“That’s a big part of their life, and it’s so wonderful to hear someone affirming that,” said Beatty. “There’s always been this thought that science and religion are in conflict, but I think the astronauts see the hand of God anyway.”

For the All Saints community, science and religion are just another part of the school day, working together to move students a little closer to their big dreams.