Mike Fincke said: “The students were very eager and their questions ranged from how an astronaut copes with being away from family, to what they eat in space." Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

Abu Dhabi: A group of Abu Dhabi school children were treated to a virtual session with a real-life astronaut earlier this week. Christopher Greenfield, Physics teacher at Brighton College Abu Dhabi, organised the session with American astronaut Mike Fincke. He told Gulf News that he wanted to provide a sense of excitement amid what has been a prolonged period of distance learning for many students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Other than providing an opportunity to speak to a real astronaut, I want children to reimagine what they can hope to achieve in the future. One of the questions that the students posed was about what inspired [Fincke] to become an astronaut, and he went on to explain how seeing astronauts on TV as a child provided the inspiration for him to work through school, college and the air force until he became an astronaut,” Greenfield said.

“Today, the UAE Space Agency is at our doorstep, waiting for young men and women to take the space programme into the future. And I wanted our students to see that there is a real opportunity,” the passionate educator added.

Widespread attendance

Fincke, who joined Nasa in 1996, is among those American astronauts who have spent the most amount of time in space. The 53-year-old is a veteran of three spaceflights and is among the astronauts who has spent the most amount of time on spacewalks. He logged into the online session from Texas around 7am (5pm in the UAE).

The one-hour session in the evening was joined by nearly 200 students enrolled from kindergarten to Year 13 (Grade 12). Greenfield, who served as head teacher in an international space school in Houston for 15 years, said he had previously organised similar meet-an-astronaut sessions for students.

“The students were very eager, and their questions ranged from how an astronaut copes with being away from family, to what they eat, to even what experiments are carried out in space. Students also learnt how space missions are testing out the mRNA technology used for COVID-19 vaccines,” Greenfield said.

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Student enthusiasm

Camellia Rashad, 10, a Ukrainian-Egyptian student enrolled in Year 5 (Grade 4), said the session had rekindled her fascination for astronomy. “I loved hearing how astronauts learn to be doctors. I have recently thought that I would study to be a bioengineer, but now I’m thinking I can pursue bioengineering to help astronauts,” Rashad said.

Dheer Baldua, a Year 11 (Grade 10) student from India, was captivated by Fincke’s account of how a piece of space debris had nearly necessitated an evacuation from the International Space Station. “I am passionate about the aerospace industry, so the session catered to my interests,” he said.