NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Students from Rocky Hill School, Curtis Corner Middle School and Pier Middle School enjoyed the opportunity of a lifetime last month, and they didn’t even have to leave their campuses.
Robotics teams from the three schools had a Skype session with Kjell Lindgren, a NASA astronaut who spent nearly five months in space back in 2015, as part of their First LEGO League challenge. Rocky Hill teacher Charlie Laurent helped put the session together with help from an alum, Brad Davey, who works at a technology learning company in Florida
“He found out that we had a robotics team connected with the school, so he came and visited and I said, ‘You don’t know any astronauts, do you?’ And he said, ‘Well, let me see what I can do,’” Laurent said. “That was before I had even looked into it, and the process for getting one is extremely difficult and takes a long time. And we got it within a month.”
Laurent said that FLL sponsors an international competition and more than 70 Rhode Island teams alone are competing. He said that outside of robotics, the initiative has components of problem solving and core values.
“‘Cooperatition’ is a big one, and that’s basically [that] we compete, but we compete in a way that we help each other out even though we’re competing,” Laurent said. “So we’re all in it together, and that’s cool.”
This year’s FLL challenge centers on inter-orbit, and Laurent left the concept open to interpretation for his students. His group focused on mindfulness, health and wellness, and every team from each institution had the chance to ask Lindgren questions pertaining to their projects.
“We do so much mindfulness in school, it’s just part of our culture,” Laurent said. “That for them it was like, why don’t they do that? Why don’t they meditate? Why don’t they do breathing techniques when they’re up in space, because there’s so much stress. They just made that connection.”
Laurent’s students had an opportunity to ask Lindgren about mindfulness in space. He said there isn’t any directed mindfulness training, and that it comes down to each astronaut finding an outlet of their own.
“So, for things like that, which can be very important, it’s really up to the individual astronaut to practice whatever it is that they feel helps them emotionally, spiritually, mentally [and] behaviorally,” Lindgren said. “And so, whether that’s meditation, whether it’s controlled breathing, whether it’s prayer, those are really things that are up to the individual crew member.”
Lindgren chatted with students for more than 45 minutes, opening with a basic overview of his experience on the International Space Station. He spent 141 days on the craft beginning in July 2015 before returning in December.
He showed a five-minute video to the teams that showed pictures of the astronauts growing romaine lettuce, brewing fresh coffee and building a satellite launcher, among other tasks. He also later showed video of exercise methods built into the station, which are vital to prevent bones from weakening and muscles from atrophying.
There was time set aside for a robust question-and-answer period, during which each school had several chances to pick Lindgren’s brain. Luke from Rocky Hill, for example, asked if Lindgren experienced stress or depression in space.
Lindgren said he never felt depressed, but there was never a chance to truly relax aboard the station.
“We live in a very dangerous environment up there, so I think you could call that stress. There’s never a time you can let your guard down,” Lindgren said. “Even as you get ready for bed, even when the work day is over, there’s always a chance that an alarm is going to go off and that your life is going to be in danger.”
One team from Pier Middle School in Narragansett inquired about the “lack of familiar touch” in space and its effects. They posited the idea of a virtual reality set with gloves and a vest that could release the same neurochemicals as an authentic human touch.
Lindgren said it was an interesting idea, adding that weekly video teleconferencing was helping for seeing his wife and kids. However, he said you’re not hugging as much in space as you may on earth.
“I think physical touch that’s certainly something that’s very important emotionally as a human, and especially for these long-duration missions,” Lindgren said. “They’re talking about going to Mars and that could take two to three years.”
Curtis Corner Middle School students had the chance to ask about the potential for growing and processing food on the space station. Lindgren showed the teams pictures from a “veggie experiment,” where a fresh crop was cultivated under controlled conditions with a grow lamp. Half was sent back to Earth, while the other half was kept for consumption.
That procedure didn’t produce much food, though, and Lindgren said that is the limit for growing their own sustenance at the moment. He showed students irradiated packages of food that can be heated up, as well as dehydrated food that comes prepackaged.
“So if you’re processing food you need to think about what’s going to contain that,” Lindgren said. “Are you going to blend it? And then once you’ve blended it up, how do you get that into something that ultimately the astronaut can use to eat from.”