SEATTLE — Crisscrossing above the Seattle region at approximately 17,000 mph aboard the International Space Station, NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei took live questions from students at Seattle Nativity School.
“How has being in space affected your view of God?” asked one eighth grader at the Jesuit middle school.
Vande Hei paused. This was not the usual inquiry.
Then he answered: “It has made me feel like God’s really complicated. Human beings have worked really hard to understand God and our relationship with God. I think I’m much more accepting of the wide variety of ways human beings experience God,” he said.
Students at the middle school had the privilege of talking to an astronaut in orbit thanks to a live video and audio link orchestrated by NASA and Vande Hei’s connection to Jesuit Father Jeffrey McDougall, president of the 75-student school focused on a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education.
Growing up, Father McDougall played football with Vande Hei, a classmate at Benilde-St. Margaret’s High School in Minnesota, and he would often brag to his students that he knew an astronaut — one on the International Space Station, no less.
“Here we go!” one student excitedly shouted as the video appeared on screen and Vande Hei, a flight engineer, casually floated into view. He performed a couple of zero-gravity backflips while waiting for the audio to connect.
While the students could see him via a video link on a screen in one of the school’s classrooms, Vande Hei could only hear them. Father McDougall stood at the microphone and the students queued up to talk to the astronaut.
Most of the questions covered predictable ground: How do you sleep? Without gravity, how do you exercise? What do you miss most about Earth?
Vande Hei mentioned some of the work the space crew is doing, like trying to grow chilies in space, recycling 95% of all water used and conducting an experiment to help people better understand how to prevent Alzheimer’s.
Vande Hei also spoke to the students about the importance of teamwork and education.
“My Catholic education … really taught me the importance of putting other people first, and that helps you be a good team player,” he said.
“The things you’re learning about in your school are really, really essential,” he said, “not just to becoming an astronaut, but just being a happy, successful and productive human being.”