On the roof of UCSB’s Broida Hall early last Monday morning, about 20 members of Goleta’s Boy Scout Troop 105 stood in complete amazement as astronaut Greg Chamitoff’s voice crackled out of a radio set, provided by the S.B. Amateur Radio Club.
“They keep us pretty busy up here,” mused Chamitoff as he floated inside the multi-billion dollar International Space Station in a low orbit over Earth, “We don’t have much of a chance to get bored.” He conceded that what free time was available was spent exercising, watching movies, or tinkering with robots specially programmed to operate in zero gravity. Unfortunately for Chamitoff, the robots are not advanced enough to make quips about the films.
The boys came with hopes of having their questions answered by the man somewhere hundreds of miles above the marine layer. The rest of the gathered scouts from other units, parents, and researchers stood in a hushed cluster as one by one the young scouts inquired about virtually every aspect of life on the space station from the surprisingly tasty food to the magnificent view.
Chamitoff responded to each question thoroughly as he explained the space station’s function and design to his eager listeners. The astronaut is currently serving a six-month tour aboard the station as its Flight Engineer and Science Officer. Among his tasks he recently suited up and inspected a robotic arm that extends from the station. As science officer he is currently involved in research into the behavior of plant life in space, gathering critical data that could one day be used to grow food for astronauts on long-distance missions on which resupply from Earth would be impossible.
According to Ken Owen, a member of the radio club who graciously operated the equipment that made contact possible, while these sorts of Q&As are not unheard of, they are, notoriously difficult to arrange, sometimes taking as long as five years before NASA approves an interview. Luckily for the scouts of Troop 105, Chamitoff is an Eagle Scout.
The astronaut said scouting helped his career by teaching him, among other skills, “leadership and followership,” skills critical in the precarious environment of space travel. In an unorthodox move, Chamitoff specifically requested to speak with the boys after keeping in contact with one of their scoutmasters, John Schlesselnam, who studied electrical engineering with him at Cal Poly. “They can’t plan it far in advance because of orbits,” Schlesselnam said about the interview, which was rescheduled several times before being finalized, “it’s a matter of being flexible.” Unfortunately due to the orbit of the station, radio contact was lost after about 10 minutes and although none of the scouts seemed disappointed, some stayed by the radio for several minutes, hoping to pose one more question to their intrepid guest.