Friends in High Places

By Travis White

Everyone knows it’s good to have friends in high places, but for students in Colin Lang’s Aerospace Engineering class this cliché has taken them higher than anyone could have imagined. “What you’re experiencing today is historic,” said Alamo Heights Principal Dr. Linda Foster.

On cold, rainy and seemingly uneventful Thursday morning on January 23, 2014, nearly 150 of Lang’s students gathered for an extraordinary twenty minute video-uplink with Expedition 38 crew members Mike Hopkins and Rick Mastracchio aboard the International Space Station.

As if this occasion wasn’t incredible enough, the event was partially organized and personally hosted by Congressman Lamar Smith.  Representative Smith is the chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, and has been a long time supporter of Lang’s initiatives at the high school. “Perhaps a future astronaut is in the room with us today,” says Smith, “It’s exciting to see the interest from students and know that this experience may inspire them in the years to come.”

According to NASA, “The students participating in the uplink are involved in SystemsGo, a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) initiative developed to promote engineering studies through research. SystemsGo helps students to develop work force skills and encourage them to study subjects that lead to careers in the engineering industries.”

At precisely 10:25am the classroom came alive with excitement (demonstrated by a boisterous applause from the students) as the two floating astronauts appeared on a large projection screen and were welcomed by the congressman. The students were visibly taken with excitement in the first moments communicating with the crew who were in orbit about 220 miles above the earth.

Students were prepared with questions in hand ranging from highly technical to everyday living. It was also clearly apparent that the astronaut’s enthusiasm during the conversation matched the student’s. Astronaut Mike Hopkins was eager to share his recent success in growing pumpkin seeds on the station as well as other experiments currently in progress aboard the station. Both astronauts talked about the everyday challenges of living in space including how they eat, sleep, work and spend their free time. "Sleeping is never stressful [in the IIS], it's actually pretty relaxing," says Hopkins, "we use sleeping bags and have to be tied down; it’s actually quite comfortable.” Hopkins goes on to describe the IIS as "quite large and spacious" saying the station's size is comparable to a five bedroom house.

Student Eric Gustion asked what dangers space junk actually poses to the ISS. "The Air Force actually tracks thousands of objects in space and predicts where those objects will be in orbit," answered Hopkins. "If [a conclusion is possible] they'll get in touch with NASA and we'll move the station. If there's not enough time to do that, then we move to our 'Soyuz' vehicle, which is what we would use to come home in- just in case there was a strike and we needed to get away."

In all, over a dozen students were able to ask questions. At the conclusion of the event Representative Smith thanked the astronauts and called them 'heroes of the modern era.' Smith went on to thank them for "...their sacrifices, expertise, and courage. You've inspired a lot of us today."

For Lang’s aerospace students this experience was one of many exciting adventures thanks (clearly) to their highly motivated teacher, the support of the school and district administration, as well as support from the local community. This summer the students will return to the New Mexico dessert to continue their aerospace ambitions with the launch of a student-engineered rocket. According to Lang, “This year the students are hoping to obtain an altitude of 100,000 feet. It is rewarding to see my students so engaged in the material they are learning about; who knows, maybe one of our students will be involved in the mission to Mars in the near future.”


The ISS is the largest spacecraft ever built, and its assembly has been ongoing for more than a decade. Its first component, the Zarya control module that provided the station's initial propulsion and power, was launched Nov. 20, 1998.

Here's a look at the International Space Station by the numbers according to NASA:

100 billion: Estimated cost of the ISS in U.S. dollars. This gives the space station the grandiose title of being the world's most expensive single object.

816,000: How much the ISS currently weighs in pounds. Once completed, the ISS will have a mass that on Earth would weigh almost 925,000 lbs, the equivalent of more than 330 cars.

220: The average distance in miles above Earth's surface the ISS orbits. On a clear day, the ISS is easily visible to the naked eye from the ground.

147: The number of spacewalks taken so far to build, maintain or repair the space station.

110: The number of kilowatts of power that the ISS will be supplied with by an acre of solar panels.

90: The number of minutes it takes the ISS to circle the Earth as it travels at 4.8 miles (7.7 km) per second.

52: The number of computers aboard the ISS to control its systems.

14: The number of pounds of crew-expelled air that the ISS systems recycle each day. Of this, 6 pounds comes from the U.S. members of the ISS crew. The water produced by this recycling is used for technical or drinking purposes.

13: The number of rooms on the station, including a small, seven-window lookout dome that provides stunning views of Earth from orbit.

Source: Space.com / NASA