Obama, students quiz space station crew

The president and a group of middle schoolers placed a 20 minute call to the International Space Station from the White House on Wednesday.

Jason Reed/Reuters
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to the crew of the International Space Station and Space Shuttle Endeavor from the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday.

Take 11 astronauts in orbit, one folksy president of the United States, and a handful of middle-school students with an engineering bent, and for at least 20 minutes on a Wednesday afternoon, geeks and geek-wannabes rule.

What tends to be a brief exchange between astronauts and their Astronaut-in-Chief during missions turned into a 20-minute cosmic talk show, with President Obama acting as MC, the students asking the questions, and the astronauts in the hot seat.

Even Stephen Colbert, who won the naming contest for the module shuttle astronauts installed during this mission, got a brief shout-out. "Everybody here back home is excited about this bay on the world you guys are opening up," the president observed as he provided the opening warm-up. "And Stephen Colbert at least is excited about his treadmill."

But the tough questions came from the students. One, identified as Ruth from North Carolina, cut to the chase.

"What are some of the benefits of exploring space as opposed to exploring other places on Earth?" she asked.

As he turned the question over to the astronauts, Mr. Obama quipped: "Pretty serious question, guys. You better have a good answer; the NASA folks are listening."

The answer? A somewhat rambling disquisition from shuttle mission specialist Stephen Robinson on how adaptable the human body is to weightlessness, but that humans still need to understand how the body and brain adapt "and how we can handle changes if we go somewhere very different than what we're used to."

Station crew member Soichi Noguchi recounted for another inquisitor the kinds of sights he and his crewmates can see from space now that they have a seven-window cupola installed.

"We are really fascinated by the great view of the Earth," he said. "We can see a lot of great landmarks," including the Golden Gate Bridge and skyscrapers in New York City. "The Grand Canyon is just breathtaking," he added.

As often happens during these events, the students received a bit of career counseling. Asked what inspired him to become an astronaut, mission specialist Nick Patrick replied: "The thing that inspired me to become an astronaut was watching the Apollo moon landings many, many years ago with my parents."

Then came the advice: “Study really hard in school, and listen to your teachers. They’re full of knowledge and experience that you really can use in whatever path your future life takes you along – whether it be engineering, science, a job in business, or even space exploration."

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