Space Place: Reflecting on a recent astronaut chat

WASHINGTON — On March 13, 2015, WTOP anchors Debra Feinstein and Mark Lewis did a live 10-minute interview with NASA Astronaut Terry Virts and European Space Agency (ESA) Astronaut Samantha (Sam) Cristoforetti aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

WTOP set up a live blog page in advance, so our audience could send in their questions to ask Terry and Sam. The response was gratifying, especially with the number of students from kindergarten and up that sent in wonderful questions. Several of the students’ questions were asked and then answered by Terry and Sam, all to the thrill I am sure, of classrooms in the DMV.

I was fortunate to be in the “Glass Enclosed Nerve Center” with Debra and Mark while they did the interview and watched Terry and Sam on NASA TV. The clarity of the reception during the interview was amazing – it was better than a cell phone or land-line – especially when you consider where the ISS is located.

WTOP is a nonstop, all news organization staffed by seasoned professionals that research, write, broadcast and report all of the news on air and online. It is a busy place.

But for 10 minutes — 10:20 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. — the newsroom got quiet and all eyes were on TV monitors and computer screens watching Terry and Sam floating aboard ISS while they talked with Debra and Mark.

The wonder of it all, from the technology that put ISS and the astronauts in space, to the ability to talk live with them, was not lost on me. But the real discovery is what I saw on the faces of my colleagues, the response from our listeners/readers/students and what followed.

To put it simply, people are fascinated by space. The WTOP staff looked on with smiles, and I must say a bit of wonderment, at what they were seeing and hearing. The follow-up emails I have received from teachers and Twitter followers reinforced this. Teachers set aside time during their busy class day to listen in; they are going to share the event with parents; and their students want to learn more about space and the universe they live in.

While having lunch afterwards at Cafe Deluxe in D.C., the General Manager asked me how my meal was, but then saw my WTOP hat. The conversation got around to the ISS interview and she was ecstatic. She had heard it and loved every word. I showed her pictures of the event to her delight and gave her my contact card.

The allure of space transcends earthly activities such as taking Uber in the District. My first-ever ride in Uber found me talking about space with my driver who saw my WTOP hat and heard the ISS interview. He gushed with excitement about hearing it while driving in D.C. traffic. He was thrilled to see the pictures taken during the event and said he hoped more would come.

These experiences add to what I already know: people get excited and care about space. In my lectures about astronomy and space that I conduct at sea, Shenandoah National Park and at other venues, people from around the world listen and ask great questions. Invariably, they always want to learn more and they want a robust space effort.

We will see great things in 2015 as we explore a comet, two dwarf planets and probe matter itself. New rockets and spaceships are being built by governments and commercial businesses to take us to the Moon, asteroids and one day, Mars. My hope is that our ISS interview sparked the interest of a student, teacher, parent, voter, tax payer that will carry through to making space part of their lives.

You can follow ISS, Terry and Sam on Twitter as I do. Terry and Sam have tweeted gorgeous and stunning pictures from ISS. By the way, you can actually see ISS fly over your location by subscribing to Spot The Station. It is a beautiful sight, especially when you realize you are looking at a million pounds of space hardware and six humans 250 miles up traveling at 17,500 miles per hour.

Wave as ISS flies over and thank the current and past crews for all they have done on our behalf. Then turn to the stars as ISS fades and say hello to our species’ destiny.

Follow my daily blog to keep up with the latest news in astronomy and space exploration. You can email me at

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