In the small lobby of Bowling Green-Warren County Regional Airport’s terminal building, 40 youths leaked jittery smiles as they stared at an ordinary projector screen on a most unordinary occasion.
Attendees of the Aviation Heritage Park summer camp watched a live transmission between International Space Station astronaut Alexander Gerst and students visiting NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia on Tuesday afternoon.
The amiable astronaut from Germany answered questions about his life orbiting Earth, such as the best and worst parts of living in a space station.
“Flying in space seems fun at first, but it comes with a few tricky situations,” Gerst said.
There are challenges and adjustments in the beginning, such as feet getting caught on Velcro or items drifting away if not stowed properly, Gerst said.
But floating through the air, peering at Earth and coming to the mind-blowing realization that you are is living in space trump any other difficulty, Gerst said.
“When I think about the fact that I live here right now in the most complex machine that humanity has ever built ... that is one of the best things that I can imagine,” Gerst said.
One student asked about the astronaut’s first thought when he reached space.
“The first thing that came to my mind is, oh my god, we really need to take care of this planet, this little fragile atmosphere,” Gerst said. “The sky doesn’t look like infinite anymore. It’s just this thin little air around this little tiny planet.
“If we don’t take care of it, well we might destroy it, we might make it impossible for us to live on that planet. We don’t have another planet that we can hop over to.
“We really have this one little oasis in a black universe, and so we have to cherish it and really take care of it,” Gerst said.
The older audience in attendance at Langley could be heard erupting into applause after the astronaut’s passionate words on the necessity, and also the privilege, of ecological preservation.
Students also inquired about water, food and safety.
For water, “the short answer is that we have to bring it with us,” Gerst said. The ISS recycles its water, and scientists continue to research methods of creating a close loop system that recycles every drop.
For food, the astronauts rely on canned items. Supplies are sent via another spaceship every few months, so the space station can’t sustain fresh fruits and vegetables. However, the astronauts are currently attempting to grow vegetables and algae on the ISS, but Gerst said they’re still in the experimental stage.
When astronauts experience medical emergencies or serious health issues, astronauts are sent home in the spaceship’s rescue capsules during an approximately daylong trip. But he also said they are lucky enough to have a medical doctor on hand – Dr. Serena Aunon-Chancellor, who is the only woman currently aboard the ISS.
One student asked what Gerst missed doing on Earth.
“I miss Earth a lot,” Gerst said, “walking through a forest and hearing the leaves whisper ... going for a run in the rain … these things only exist on this little planet.”
One student asked if the astronauts played pranks on one another.
When performing a serious job, it’s important to have fun and laugh, Gerst said.
“Without that, it would be boring,” he said.
The astronaut encouraged the students watching to follow their dreams – because one day they too could be floating on the ISS.
After the transmission ended, the spell was broken and the children resumed normal youthful dialogues.
But for those 20 minutes, the kids were “really engaged,” said Kurt Jefferson, an aeronautics instructor from the Aviation Museum of Kentucky in Lexington who teaches at the statewide camps.
“There’s something about space that is so real, it’s just amazing,” Jefferson said.
He believes the 10- to 16-year-old kids attending the camp are at the right age to begin imagining pathways toward space or aviation, and that the camp “opens them up to the concept.”
“Maybe one day one of them will become an astronaut,” Jefferson said.