Elgin-area students video chat with astronaut on space station

If you were expecting a bubble helmet and Michelin Man suit, sorry: All you got was khakis and a polo shirt.

But besides the NASA astronaut's attire - more suburban dad than interstellar adventurer - a live video chat between Elgin area students and Jeff Williams, commander of Expedition 48 on the International Space Station, met all expectations Thursday morning.

About 30 kids up to seventh grade were invited to the event at Gail Borden Public Library, which is hosting the "Discover Space" exhibit through July 5.

"What do you eat in space?" Aanya Vyas asked. Military ready-to-eat meals, a lot of dehydrated food, and coffee through a straw, Williams said.

What does he miss the most when he's 249 miles above Earth? Family, the sounds and smells of nature, and quiet, because of the constant noise of fans and pumps running in the background.

Sara Kashyap asked, "What does it feel like, the moment you take off on a rocket?"

Like you're being fired off a slingshot, Williams replied.

If he discovered a planet, what would he name it?

That would be so significant, Williams said, it would be best to have a lot of people - maybe even kids - involved in the decision.

Williams' mission to the space station began March 18; he's scheduled to come back to Earth in September, according to the space station's website.

One of the biggest challenges, he said, came with a fire in the Russian segment of the space station.

Otherwise, Williams' job consists of studying the effects of weightlessness on the human body, including vision, bone density and the cardiovascular system, he explained.

Will pets ever be allowed on the space station, Leilani Herrera Taboada asked.

Likely not, Williams said. Animals sometimes are a part of scientific experiments, but, um, you can't really consider them pets.

The kids also video chatted with Elgin native Hal Getzelman, who works as capsule communicator chief engineer for NASA in Houston.

Getzelman was instrumental in setting up the video chat. He also helped set up a live radio chat at the Elgin library - also between students and the International Space Station - in 2007, when the library hosted a different space exhibit.

"We know how these events can change lives," library spokeswoman Denise Raleigh said. "We want to maximize the chance the kids who participate or watch will say, 'I can be part of future, wherever it leads, even if it is on another planet or further.'"

Parent Miriam Saldivar said she was grateful her daughter Reyna got to participate. "It's something incredible," she said. "I think this is going to help spark her interest in math and science."

Student Caden Pendergrass asked Williams how one becomes an astronaut.

"The main way to become an astronaut is to apply for the job," he replied, adding that half have a military background, and the rest come from the science and technology fields.

And Madison Hunt asked the eternal question: "Do you think there is life on another planet?"

"Personally, I don't see any evidence of life on another planet," Williams said, "but it sure doesn't hurt to go look for it. And during the looking, who knows what we are going to discover?"

  Elgin students video chatted with Hal Getzelman, who works at NASA in Houston, on Thursday morning at Gail Borden Public Library. Getzelman is an Elgin High School graduate. Rick West/
  During a video chat with NASA astronaut Jeff Williams, student Leilani Herrera Taboada asked if pets will ever be allowed on the International Space Station. Leilani is a first grader at Channing Elementary School. Rick West/
  Hal Getzelman, an Elgin High School graduate who works at NASA in Houston, was instrumental in setting up the video chat with the International Space Station. Rick West/
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