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Elgin students make contact with astronaut
By Lenore T. Adkins | Daily Herald Staff

Sean Edwards, 11, talks with NASA astronaut Clay Anderson during a live link with the International Space Station Wednesday at the Gail Borden Library in Elgin. Amateur radio operator Greg Braun of Geneva holds the microphone. It was the first ham radio linkup with the space station from a library.


Christopher Hankins | Staff Photographer

A student walks to the microphone to ask his question while a map showing the flight path of the International Space Station lets audience members know exactly where it is in real time.


Christopher Hankins | Staff Photographer

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Published: 9/6/2007 12:02 AM | Updated: 9/6/200 7:21 AM

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At first, there was nothing but static -- enough to make most people cringe.

But after three more tries, an amateur radio operator at the Gail Borden Library on Wednesday finally established a clear connection with Clay Anderson, an astronaut aboard the International Space Station now orbiting Earth.

As the space station passed over Elgin from 220 miles above Earth at more than 17,000 mph, Anderson spent 10 minutes fielding questions from 16 local schoolchildren about his out-of-this-world life.

He talked about everything from what book he's reading in orbit ("Sahara" by Clive Cussler) to his favorite foods on the station (meat and potatoes).

And it was in those moments that the Elgin library went where no library had gone before.

It became the first to ever communicate with the space station via amateur radio, said Greg Braun, president of Fox Valley Amateur Radio League, which operated the radio equipment. Three antennas were installed on the roof earlier this week to make the cosmic connection.

"We're very honored and excited to be part of a historic event like this," said Carole Medal, the library's director.

More than 220 people showed up for the standing-room-only event that was packed with students, parents, school officials and local politicians.

"This library never ceases to amaze me with the things it does with the public," said Elgin Mayor Ed Schock. "I'll never forget it."

A virtual audience of 4,250 people tuned into the live Web cast on the library's site, said Denise Raleigh, the library's spokeswoman.

The library selected a diverse group of students from schools within the library district to ask questions -- a pair from Elgin Academy also were manning video cameras for the Web cast.

As the students approached the microphone to ask Anderson questions, the excitement was visible on their faces, complete with shy smiles.

Some politicians were just as thrilled as the children.

"I just thought back to … the moon landings," said a nostalgic state Rep. Ruth Munson, who recalls watching the 1969 event from a black and white television set. "The whole school was buzzing."

Before the Anderson chat and while the space station made its way from Australia to Elgin, another 15 students spent a few moments on the radio talking to Hal Getzelman, a 1972 graduate of Elgin High School.

Getzelman now works for NASA in Houston, communicates directly with the space station and volunteered to help bring this event to fruition, Raleigh said.

His involvement came after he found out about the library's ongoing "Space: Dare to Dream" exhibition that closes in 17 days and has set attendance records since it was launched, Raleigh said.

In July, the library logged 72,000 visitors, its highest number ever, said Kate Burlette, director of circulation services.

Moreover, its attendance numbers for the first three months of the exhibit top the library's 2005 exhibit featuring African dinosaurs.

The library counted 133,713 guests during that time.

But in the three months since "Space" debuted, 208,591 people have visited the library, Burlette said.

As for what the library can do to top Wednesday's act, Medal admits it'll be difficult.

But not impossible.

"Oh, we will," she said casually. "We just keep raising the bar."

Their turn

The library selected 16 kids within its district to question astronaut Clay Anderson about his life in the International Space Station 220 miles above Earth. Here are some of the questions and answers.

• Sean Edwards, an 11-year-old at Creekside Elementary in Elgin, wanted to know when children will join astronauts in outer space. Anderson's response? "I hope it's within the next 15 to 20 years, and I hope it's you, buddy."

• Giselle Muneton, 7, of Channing Elementary in Elgin, wanted to know about the food, specifically what Anderson chows down on. While nothing's better than Oreos, Anderson said, "I like to eat meat and potatoes up here."

• Austin Dunn, 9, of Fox Meadow Elementary School in South Elgin, had gravity on his mind, wanting to know what life is like without it. "It feels like I'm Superman," Anderson said. "All I have to do is push off my feet and I fly everywhere."