“NA1SS, NA1SS, this is W6SRJ for contact.”
The call, to American astronaut Ricky Arnold, is 18 months in the making and there is no guarantee they will get through.
“NA1SS, NA1SS, W6SRJ.”
The call sign is met with nothing but static, and the operator repeats it a third time, then a fourth.
Finally, a voice responds.
“…how do you read, over?”
Rebecca Clarke, principal of Walford Anglican School for Girls, breathes a sigh of relief – along with many more listening on.
“Even on the night, we didn’t know if they’d answer, we didn’t know if the call would be clear, we didn’t know if they’d be called away to some other component of work on the ISS,” she says on reflection.
Their planned interview with astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor had just fallen through, after she was called away to patch a hole in the space station.
“...you just never know what’s going to happen,” Clarke says.
“There are a lot of risks involved with not even connecting with them, but the fact that we connected, it was just the most incredible, incredible night for us here at the school.”
Thirteen students, the winners of an in-school competition, lined up to ask Arnold their questions.
“One of the questions that was asked of him was ‘how do you get to be an astronaut?’, and he explained that, clearly, you have to have a strong interest in the STEM subjects, but you also have to be prepared to do things out of your comfort zone,” Clarke says.
“So children in that auditorium actually listened to somebody who had lived out an experience that saw him start out teaching, with a strong interest in STEM, but actually step outside of his comfort zone and go through a rigorous training process … to become a NASA astronaut, so they were able to see firsthand that anything’s possible.”
Clarke says the experience affected students in different ways.
Some were inspired to look at careers in aeronautical engineering and astrophysics, while others had a more emotional reaction.
“One of our Year 12 physics girls was moved to tears at the end of it, because one of the questions that he was asked was ‘has your view of humanity changed since working on the ISS?’” she says.
“He explained that when you are in outer space looking back at the Earth, you recognise the Earth in its entirety and you see its fragility, and you see it as the only place where human life can be sustained and how important it is that we preserve our planet, look after it and make sure that we value it for future generations.
“She was so moved by that, so I think that, for her, what she got out of it was a different form of appreciation and understanding of humanity and our place in the world.”
The event left an impression on everybody present.
“We’re an all-girls school, but we opened it up and even my own son was just in awe, ‘are we speaking to someone in outer space?’” Clarke says.
Since being live streamed on the school’s Facebook page, the event has been viewed thousands of times.
“Just seeing people in awe of that conversation, it was one of those ‘aha’ moments. One of the best moments of my career actually, in a classroom, was that evening.”