SOUTH BEND -- Eighth-grader Jocelyn Drexinger stepped onto the stage in Stanley Clark School's auditorium and asked astronaut Peggy Whitson about life in outer space.
"What insights have you gained in viewing Earth from the International Space Station and during your space walk?" Jocelyn asked, speaking into the radio microphone that was broadcasting to the International Space Station.
Jocelyn was one of about a dozen students who had the chance early Wednesday afternoon to query Whitson about life aboard the station. She was participating in a conversation made possible through NASA, her school, and the Michiana Amateur Radio Club, which provided the equipment and know-how needed to contact the station.
School parents and officials arranged the contact with Whitson since they'd met her when she visited Stanley Clark four years ago while still an astronaut candidate. They set up Wednesday's conversation, which lasted about 10 minutes.
Stanley Clark is one of just six schools that arranged to have a radio conversation with the station during its current expedition.
Students and teachers filled the darkened auditorium and watched as a group of science students, aided by radio operators, stepped one by one onto the lighted stage to ask questions they'd prepared.
Students listened as Whitson spoke, her voice punctuated by bursts of static as she answered questions from Jocelyn and others.
"I think the most interesting thing is seeing how the atmosphere is fragile and something we want to take care of," she said in response to Jocelyn's question.
When sixth-grader Janna Zimmerman asked whether other astronauts had influenced her, Whitson recalled becoming excited about space by seeing early astronauts in action.
Other students asked questions about health, communication and technical operations aboard the station. Since the space station was passing over South Bend shortly before the conversation started and was moving quickly, students knew they had six to 12 minutes before radio transmission stopped working.
Radio operators were pleased to set up the conversation without a hitch.
"It was pretty darn exciting," said club member Rick Nimtz. "This was make or break. I was just glad it worked and just glad that everything happened the way it was supposed to happen."
Sharon Brinker, whose son, Troy Brinker, talked with Whitson, said she's glad she and other school representatives have kept in touch with the astronaut since her visit in 1998.
"We consider her our astronaut," she said.
Preparing for and experiencing Wednesday's conversation helped Stanley Clark students get more interested in learning about space, she said.
"I'm just thrilled that it happened," she said. "It brings space into the home, and the teachers deserve all the credit."