NORMAL — Some junior high school students practice for sports or music, but for several months, Chiddix eighth-grader Dhruv Rebba has been practicing how to talk with astronauts on the International Space Station.

All of those hours of training came to fruition Monday morning, when, in front of about 50 students and visitors, Rebba made contact with International Space Station astronaut Joe Acaba through an amateur radio setup in the Normal school’s library.

“I was a little bit nervous, but also pretty confident just because I have been practicing and waiting for this day for a long time,” said Rebba.

The school partnered with the Challenger Learning Center, the Children’s Discovery Museum and the Central Illinois Radio Club to talk with Acaba as part of the Amateur Radio on the International Space Station Program. 

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Chiddix science teacher Dee Hopper. “It allows the students to make connections to what we do in our science classes.”

Acaba fielded 20 questions from 16 of the school's more than 600 students. The event was broadcast live on Facebook, allowing the rest of the Chiddix students to watch in their classrooms.

The group was given 10 minutes to ask as many questions as they could.

“It was very exciting and I was kind of nervous,” said seventh-grader Kylie Thomas, who asked Acaba about his favorite experiment. “I’m kind of new to the school and yet I was picked from about 600 students, but it was really cool.”

Acaba said his favorite experiment involves trying to grow lettuce.

“Hopefully, soon, we will be able to eat some fresh vegetables,” he said.

Eighth-grader Sarah Vose said she also was nervous when she asked about the effects of space on the human body, but she was thrilled to have the chance.

“So many people would love to be able to do this,” she said. “I really feel blessed to be able to do it.”

Acaba said there are a number of effects on the human body in space.

“Our vision does change up here, and radiation also has an impact on our body, although that is something we don’t often notice right away,” he said.

Seventh-grader Priest Hickey said he had a lot of emotions as he stepped up to ask his question about how astronauts exercise in space.

“It was scary and I was nervous beforehand, but when my time came, I felt less nervous because I knew I was going to get a real answer from a real astronaut,” Priest said. “I was really happy about that because I thought it was really cool.”

Astronauts, Acaba explained, have a treadmill, which includes a harness to hold them down so they don’t float off of it. Also, they have a stationary bike and a resistance machine that simulates lifting weights.

Chiddix was one of 11 schools in the United States provided the opportunity this year.

Grant Zehr, a Ham radio operator and the coordinator for the Chiddix event, which had been in the planning stages for two years, said everything worked perfectly.

“It went amazingly well,” he said. “I was a little worried about the (rainy) weather, but that didn’t bother us at all. I know it meant a lot to the Central Illinois Radio Club to help with this project, and the students were great and had really good questions.”

The astronauts use amateur radio to communicate with Earth, including sometimes talking with amateur radio enthusiasts.

“I’ve talked with them myself, probably three or four times,” Zehr said. “They don’t always answer, of course, because they are busy or may not be in the mood to talk. But, today’s experience was fantastic on so many levels and we were glad to be a part of it.”

Follow Kevin Barlow on Twitter: @pg_barlow

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Staff Writer

Staff Writer for The Pantagraph.

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