John Glenn Middle School calls astronauts at International Space Station

John Glenn Middle School and ham radio volunteers made history Feb. 22 by speaking with Commander Shane Kimbrough, commander of the International Space Station. Sixth-grader Andrewon Xiong wanted to know, “How important is team work to the mission of the ISS crew?”

ARISS, Amateur Radio on the International Space Station, is a worldwide experience.

Ham radio volunteers have spent months preparing to make contact with the ISS from John Glenn Middle School. The suspense builds as static and then clear contact is made Feb. 22.

John Dean holds the microphone as John Glenn Middle School eighth-grader Laila Tolbert begins the exciting question-answer session with the International Space Station with, “How do you handle an acute illness like one that needs an operation or immediate help?”

Students ask Commander Kimbrough about life in space

“NA1SS, KOJDD calling for a scheduled contact. Do you copy? Over.”

“NA1SS copies loud and clear. Over.”

After five attempts to reach the International Space Station on the radio, John Dean, professor at Augsburg College and former John Glenn student, finally made contact on behalf of John Glenn Middle School. The hearts of students, teachers and parents soared as over a year of planning came to fruition at about 12:45 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 22.

Fourteen pre-selected students asked astronaut Robert Shane Kimbrough questions about his experience as the current commander of the space station. 

“This is Mahki — sixth grade. What is the best thing you’ve seen in space? Over,” Mahki Triplett asked.

“Well, the best thing I’ve seen is our planet Earth. It’s so special, and it’s an especially cool perspective to see our planet from orbit. Over,” Kimbrough responded.

“This is Gaberik — seventh grade. What happens if the space station breaks down? Over,” Gaberik Holm asked.

 “Think of like a big, maybe, house or big office building; things are going to break, but the whole place usually doesn’t break,” Kimbrough said. 

“We don’t really ever plan on the whole thing breaking, but if a few things break during the day or the week then we’re trying to fix those things with the help of all the people on the ground with mission control centers. Over.”

“This is Elizabeth — seventh grade. What is your favorite piece of research you have done, and how is it impacting our future? Over,” Elizabeth Sauerwein-Willer asked.

“Well, one of my favorite experiments is that I got to plant some lettuce up here and see if it would actually grow, and it took about six weeks and it grew really well up here, so it’s something we’re going to have to have if we want to go out to a place like Mars or somewhere really far out in space. We’re going to have to be able to grow our own food,” Kimbrough said.

The children asked their questions quickly because they had been warned that interference or other unforeseeable circumstances could cut the conversation short, leaving questions unanswered.

“Sometimes NASA has to postpone the contact. Sometimes we can’t establish a radio connection. Sometimes the connection starts, but has to end abruptly,” Principal Jill Miklausich explained.

To top it off, they knew the connection would only last roughly nine minutes and 40 seconds as the space station passed over North America in its orbit around Earth. According to Dean, the space station passed to the north of the middle school at 17,500 miles per hour and roughly 200 miles in altitude. 

The students who weren’t asking questions sat on the gym floor in captivated silence as they were told about the importance of cleanliness on the ISS.

“Being clean is a big part of being up here and keeping everybody on the crew healthy,” Kimbrough said. 

“We’re in a pretty small space so we don’t want pass any germs along to other people, so we’re very meticulous about being clean and keeping our hands clean. We don’t have a shower up here so we just kind of wipe down our bodies every day after we work out.”

The audience of about 900 people hardly seemed to breathe as they learned that the clean water systems used in space are now benefiting Third World countries that do not have safe drinking water.

The students also learned that sleeping in space can be challenging, that it takes between 15 minutes and an hour for astronauts on the space station to receive emails from Earth, and that the team for the station includes six astronauts in space as well as thousands of people on Earth.

The students had time to ask all 16 of their planned questions and even sign off with “73,” which in Morse code stands for “best regards.”


The planning that made it possible

The conversation with Kimbrough was over a year in the making and involved teamwork between individuals from numerous organizations.

About a year and a half ago, Dr. Noel Petit, a professor at Augsburg College and ham radio enthusiast, discussed the possibility with his stepdaughter Molly Stillings, who teaches at John Glenn Middle School.

“He knew that the ARISS, which stands for Amateur Radio International Space Station program, was using ham radio to connect schools with astronauts on the ISS. He thought that John Glenn Middle School might be interested. He was right,” Principal Miklausich said.

“He said, ‘Let’s put in the application and cross our fingers,’ and we were really lucky,” Stillings said.

Miklausich added that most of the challenges that had to be overcome were technical, and the technical team had been preparing for the event for about a year. 

 “It was getting our systems here so that they weren’t interfering with the ham radio systems, so they did a lot of different wiring. We’ve got an antenna that’s up on the roof that had to be installed,” Miklausich explained.

She added that the conversation was initially planned to occur last fall, but “everything did not come through with the right connection” and the event was rescheduled. 

Stillings said that the ARISS program is especially interested in the education component of these conversations, so the school incorporated relevant lessons across all departments.

“Student awareness and education began last spring. Students learned about the astronaut John Glenn, astronauts with diverse backgrounds, the International Space Station and radio communication,” Miklausich said.

John Glenn Middle School was the first school to be named after Glenn, who in 1962 was the first American to orbit Earth and later became the oldest person to go into space. He also had a 25-year career as a U.S. senator from Ohio and passed away Dec. 8, 2016, at age 95.

Early on in the planning process, six advisory groups and the Space Radio Club were asked to generate questions, and the top 20 questions were picked from the pool. 

The students who asked the questions were selected from every advisor group to represent the diversity and age range of the student body. 

After the conversation with Kimbrough, students wrote up a reflection that included both pictures and words to describe their experiences.

“We are going to take from that pool of reflections, and we’re going to make a bound memory book,” Stillings said.

“There have only been a handful of schools from Minnesota to have this honor,” Miklausich added.


Aundrea Kinney can be reached at 651-748-7822 or


Rate this article: 
Average: 4.9 (11 votes)
Comment Here