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McAuliffe Elementary students get extraterrestrial visit

By Josh Staloch
Staff Writer

BELLEVUE – Students at McAuliffe Elementary School in Bellevue got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to speak with Mark Vande Hei, NASA astronaut, as he hurdled through space at five miles per second in the International Space Station (ISS), somewhere above Africa.  

The group of mixed-grade students weren’t the only ones in amazement during the call. Vande Hei’s cousin, Michelle McVane, a speech and language pathologist at McAuliffe, was on hand to say hi and help the starstruck students with their questions.

“This was awesome,” Michelle McVane said. “I’ll be honest, I was able to do this in July, it was my uncle’s 80th birthday and many of us met in Montana to celebrate his dad’s 80th.We had a meeting sort of like today’s. But to look across the lunchroom and see the kids, quiet and still and into it, I couldn’t believe it. I would say it’s the highlight of my career. The next step is to bring him here, once he gets back home, we want to bring him here to talk to the kids.”

Vande Hei has been on the ISS for more than 280 days, and is on track to break a record for the longest consecutive days an American has been in space.

He is a U.S. Army Colonel, and was selected in 2009 asn a member of the 20th NASA astronaut class.

There were no shortage of questions, with little hands raising any time there was a break. 

“What do you eat in space?”

“How do you keep yourself in one place and not float around all the time?”

“What made you want to be an astronaut?” 

“How do electronics work in space?”

“Can you use wifi?”

Vande Hei answered each one-by-one.

One early question: “How did you feel during liftoff?”

Vande Hei’s answer mesmerized the kids.

“I launched out of Kazakhstan on a Russian spacecraft, which is much smaller than the space shuttle,” Vande Hei said. “It was a very smooth ride. In fact, I was a little surprised that it wasn’t more exciting. At the moment of launch, I could certainly hear like a crackling noise. It seemed much less dramatic than when I had been outside the spacecraft watching. When you’re watching from outside, there are flames that engulf the spacecraft while you’re still waiting on the pad and haven’t even started to launch yet. It’s so scary looking that we actually have to warn family members that that’s actually normal, everything’s fine.”

Making the call even more impactful is McAuliffe Elementary’s connection to space exploration. The school is named after Christa McAuliffe, a New Hampshire high school teacher who was on her way to space as part of NASA’s Teacher in Space program on Jan. 28, 1986 when, shortly after takeoff, her spacecraft, the Challenger, exploded over Cape Canaveral, Florida, killing all seven astronauts on board.

The meet-and-greet held with Vande Hei took place on Jan. 28, 2022, the 36th anniversary of the tragedy. 

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