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Years in the planning, the NASA Downlink last week went off without a hitch as Charles County students asked astronauts Rick Mastracchio and Mike Hopkins questions — while the men were working at the International Space Station.

“I thought it was very cool,” said Berry Elementary School fifth-grader Branden Hicks, breaking into a smile. “Ever since I was 4 years old I wanted to be an astronaut.”

He said he will remember the experience as he grows up.

“I think you can refer back to what you heard today and it will help you with your job,” Branden said.

Students connected with the astronauts in real time while they are stationed in outer space through Telepresence, a conferencing technology used in area schools.

Earlier in the year, students in elementary, middle and high schools submitted questions to their science teachers that they would ask astronauts if given the opportunity.

A six-person committee at the board of education’s central office shuffled through hundreds of questions to whittle it down to 20.

“They had to be simple enough to give us a snapshot of what’s going on,” in space, said Monique Wilson, director of the James E. Richmond Science Center at St. Charles High School who lead the downlink.

Mastracchio and Hopkins switched back and forth when answering questions.

“What inspired you to be an astronaut,” asked Nina Brown, a second-grader at William B. Wade Elementary School.

Mastracchio said that when he was Nina’s age, he loved everything about space and would perk up when teachers started talking about it. He also found that he excelled in math and science and would go on to a career as an engineer.

“I’m so excited to work for NASA,” Mastracchio said. “It’s an incredible job.”

Kaylee Wade, a Henry E. Lackey High School freshman, asked if, given unlimited supplies, Hopkins would opt to live in space.

He said he is married, has kids and family members that he misses while he’s in space.

Without them, “it would be difficult to live up here,” he said.

But if a person really wanted to live in space?

“It could be a lot of fun to spend your life up here,” Hopkins said.

He is part of Expedition 37/38 which launched from Kazakhstan on Sept. 25 with Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazanskiy. Expedition 37 commander Fyodor Yurchikhin of Roscosmos, Karen Nyberg of NASA and Luca Parmitano of the European Space Agency are also at the station.

Hopkins, Kotov and Ryazanskiy are scheduled to return to Earth in March, according to information from NASA.

Mastracchio launched from Kazakhstan in November with Soyuz Commander Mikhail Tyurin of the Russian Federal Space Agency and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency Flight Engineer Koichi Wakata, according to NASA information.

When he was superintendent of schools, James E. Richmond said he was intent on ensuring that students were introduced early on to science, technology, engineering and math — the STEM subjects — to develop a love for the subjects and strive to learn more.

He said that when working to craft education options for students it is best to look to the future.

“We look 10 to 15 years down the road,” he said. “If you can see it today, it’s old news tomorrow. We need to lock children into science and math. If you look at the future of Charles County, it’s bright.”

Richmond, Wilson and other staff members worked for two years to bring the NASA Downlink to the area.

Wilson said she put together a proposal for the program only to be turned down.

A conference call with NASA laid out how to better the school system’s chances next time, sending Wilson back to the drawing board.

“There is a lot of competition,” she said, adding that it’s not only schools that want to host the downlink, but museums and the private sector vie for the opportunity, too.

She resubmitted the proposal to NASA in April and found out they were selected in September.

Staff members scrambled to make sure the technology was up to snuff, reaching out to Comcast for advice and others in the community for help, Wilson said.

The 20-minute question-and-answer session saw 18 of the 20 questions fielded.

High schoolers Adriana Carioti, a junior at Thomas Stone High School, and Gill-Jan Eleasar, a senior at North Point High School, were not able to ask their questions, but still got to talk to the astronauts.

“We wish you safety and luck on your mission,” Gill-Jan said with Wilson giving him a thumbs-up for thinking on his feet to close out the conversation for the students, parents and faculty who gathered for the downlink.

“This is authentic instruction,” said Kimberly A. Hill, Charles County’s superintendent of schools. “It is an authentic STEM activity that these students are going to remember for a lifetime.”

She said that educators strive to connect the real world and the classroom.

Kris Lukas, a sophomore at La Plata, has participated in other teleconferences at school before.

He said he likes hearing from experts, knowing he’s getting the best information.

“If they’re expert, it’s the real deal,” he said.

“What a day,” Hill said, addressing the students. “Is it every day that you talk to an astronaut?”

A reception was held across the street from the high school at the Jesse L. Starkey Administration Building to acknowledge the students and announce that the science center at St. Charles High will be named to honor Richmond.

“Charles County Public Schools is not new to STEM, but due to the dedication and vision of Mr. Richmond, we are head and shoulders above our peers,” Hill said.

Inquiring minds

Students participating in the downlink were:

Branden Hicks of Berry Elementary School, Morgan Thompson of Walter J. Mitchell Elementary School, Candace Jackson of William A. Diggs Elementary School, Nina Brown of William B. Wade Elementary School, Victoria Gordon of Indian Head Elementary School, Leah Defalco of Dr. Thomas L. Higdon Elementary School, Jolie Lombardi of Higdon, Nina Harris of J.C. Parks Elementary School, Tamara McGhee of Mary H. Matula Elementary School, Alisha Douglas of Eva Turner Elementary School, Elizabeth Parent of Milton M. Somers Middle School, Annie Landgraf of Somers, Misa Oliver of Mattawoman Middle School, Daryl Raguindin of Benjamin Stoddert Middle School, Andrew Fan of Piccowaxen Middle School, Tanina Bivins of La Plata High School, Kris Lukas of La Plata High School; Kaylee Wade of Henry E. Lackey High School, Adriana Carioti of Thomas Stone High School and Gill-Jan Eleazar of North Point High School.