Students speak with Medina ‘space tourist’

Charles Simonyi

Two hundred miles above Earth, the astronaut described to students what the planet looks like from outer space.

Its an incredible sight. Its as big as the sky on a beautiful summer day, said Medina’s Charles Simonyi, ex-Microsoft developer and the world’s fifth space tourist, who launched on his second trip to space aboard a Soyuz rocket on March 26.

During Simonyi’s trip, 33 students in the Lake Washington School District participated in a teleconference via ham radio with Simonyi.

Sandburg Elementary in Kirkland was one of only three schools around the world that participated in the teleconference. The other participating schools were Miyahara Elementary School in Japan and CAMUS in France.

During the 10-minute conversation, 20 students had the opportunity to ask Simonyi questions they had prepared. Students took turns coming to the front of the class and reading their question into a phone, equipped with a microphone to project their voice.

Principal Mark Blomquist reminded students to say over when they were done with a question.

What was the hardest part of training? asked students Evan Davis and John Williams.

“I think the hardest part was the rotating chair that makes you dizzy and carsick,” Simonyi said of the chair that spins to get astronauts used to weightlessness.

Grace Harrington asked Simonyi if he gets claustrophobic in space.

“It’s very tight,” he replied, “but I think of it more as a cozy place in the spacecraft. Its a very nice feeling.”

Other students wanted to know what it was like landing and taking off in a shuttle.

“Imagine that you are in a baby seat and somebody rear ends your car at 20 miles an hour – thats landing,” Simonyi said. “And taking off is being in a shaky elevator. It shakes a lot and you feel kind of a lifting movement.”

Life aboard the International Space Station takes some getting used to as well, he said. Astronauts who stay on the station for extended periods are required to exercise a couple hours a day on a treadmill or weight machine. Astronauts also have sleeping bags they can hang anywhere and zip themselves in when they sleep to keep them from floating away.

Another student asked what Simonyi sees in space as he’s coming back to Earth.

“During re-entry, the air around the space station is heated up and it looks like Pepto Bismol,” he said as some students and parents laughed. “It’s like a pink fluid that you cannot see through. It’s very interesting and a little bit funny, too.”

After the event, principal Mark Blomquist said the experience was amazing.

“It’s pretty overwhelming to think were talking with people who are 200 miles above the earths surface and it was great to be a part of that,” Blomquist said.

Carrie Wood is editor of the Kirkland Reporter. She can be contacted at

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