Students from Stella Maris College were able to ask an astronaut questions as he flew past the island aboard the International Space Station (ISS) on Wednesday afternoon, a first in Maltese history.

Daniel Grech, 12, the first Maltese student whose question was beamed through the stratosphere and into the ears of American astronaut Joshua Cassada, was over the moon at his accomplishment.

“It feels absolutely incredible,” Daniel said as he described the experience that he “cannot put into words.”

“[Science] has been a passion for me since I was five, maybe even six, and the moment the opportunity presented itself, I couldn’t say no,” he said as he attempted to control his excitement.

Daniel asked Cassada what astronauts eat on the ISS as they hurtle at a rough speed of 27,500 kilometres per hour around the Earth. 

“I’m about to have some pasta… that’s going to be my lunch today,” Cassada replied as he passed over France while Malta was within the station’s communication range.

A conversation that's out of this world. Video by Matthew Mirabelli. Edited: Karl Andrew Micallef

After Daniel, 12 more questions were asked until, mid-response, Cassada’s voice was taken over by loud static, ending the Q&A session after 10 minutes of back and forth between the astronaut and the students.

Samuel, 11, asked about the taste of space food. “I’ll tell you what, after about five months, it’s all starting to taste the same to me,” Cassada said over the radio as he explained his growing preference for cereal over his usual pasta.

Nicholas, 13, asked if there is a maximum time limit a person can stay in space. “Boy, I sure hope so Nicholas,” he responded as although he loves being up there, he is anxious to get home after five months up in the final frontier.

The questions were written collectively by students from Stella Maris along with students from St Francis School, De La Salle Junior School and Sacred Heart College who also attended the event.

The 13 students who were able to speak to astronaut Cassada before the connection was cut. Photo: Matthew MirabelliThe 13 students who were able to speak to astronaut Cassada before the connection was cut. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

In the middle of his 13th response, Cassada lost contact with the island as students and teachers erupted in applause while members of the Malta Amateur Radio League (MARL) who organised the communications embraced.

The process for Wednesday’s contact began two and a half years ago for the MARL, engineer Dominic Azzopardi and MARL president Manuel Grech said. 

The original plan was to make contact with the space station in December. However, issues arose on the ISS and the event was postponed to February.

“It’s incredible. It is our dream, it’s been our dream for a long time,” Azzopardi said after successfully making contact with the ISS roughly 412km away – a distance shorter than that between Malta and Napoli (550km).

Engineer Dominic Azzopardi keeping the line clear as students asked their questions. Photo: Matthew MirabelliEngineer Dominic Azzopardi keeping the line clear as students asked their questions. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Yet, as close as it may be, the incredible speeds of the ISS posed a challenge to the team as they had to track the station as it travelled at seven kilometres per second – the equivalent of travelling from the centre of Valletta to Birkirkara in a single second.

Although Wednesday’s live call was a highlight for everyone involved, it was only one small step for the college as they have centred their first term around themes of space and science, headmaster Manuel Cilia said. 

“In summer, we organised a space club,” he said as the school educated their students in astronomy and the technology and history behind it.

The space-orientated syllabus also saw students learn about the science fiction that proceeded the real technologies as the school covered books such as H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds over the past term.

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