More than 2,500 students from UVa-Wise and elementary, middle and high schools around the region will have the opportunity to speak with astronauts currently aboard the International Space Station at a first-of-its-kind event to be held in January in the convocation center.
The Jan. 26 event will also include more than $100,000 — three tons — of space and science exhibits from NASA facilities around the country, including full-scale replicas of space probes, astronaut suits, high powered rocket launches and a piece of moon rock from Apollo 14.
At least two former or current astronauts are scheduled to speak as well and several prominent politicians have been invited, said Jack Kennedy, the event’s main organizer.
“Too many young children — particularly in the coalfields of Southwest Virginia — don’t get the chance to go to museums of great quality,” Kennedy said. “This is a chance to bring them a small portion of that.”
Students from local schools who competed in competitions in advance, including one from UVa-Wise, will be able to pose questions to the astronauts stationed aboard the ISS during a live two-way video chat. It will be the first such live chat to be hosted in Southwest Virginia, Kennedy said.
Kennedy, whose day job is as Wise County Clerk of Circuit Court, was this week reappointed by Gov. Bob McDonnell to a second term as a member of the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority. He holds a master’s degree in space policy from the University of North Dakota.
He said he’s been organizing the event for the past year in part to encourage area students to explore science education, think outside the box and dream big.
“Sometimes there’s this perception among school and college children where they think ‘We can’t do it’ just because of the area in which they live,” Kennedy said. “I reject that.”
One of the speakers at the event will be Adam Sanders, a Big Stone Gap native who attended Powell Valley High School and later went on to design a humanoid robot interface for NASA and General Motors.
That robot — Robonaut 2 — is currently aboard the space station. A full-scale replica of the device will be featured at the January event.
Kennedy said he hopes to use the event as a jumping-off point for other science initiatives in area classrooms. He’s currently in talks with college and corporate officials that could lead to UVa-Wise students sending an experiment up to the ISS as early as 2013.
He said it doesn’t faze him that no other college in Virginia has yet put a student experiment aboard the space station.
“There is absolutely no reason it cannot be done from UVa-Wise,” he said. “We find ourselves locked into the thinking that that’s beyond our reach, that it’s beyond the scope of our capacity, when in reality that’s false. We just have to expand our thinking to be able to achieve it.”
The event is set to be broadcast to classrooms across Virginia through a partnership with NASA and the Virginia Education Association.
Kennedy said he hopes the event will remind students and area educators why science education is needed.
“I think it’s important that students be afforded the opportunity to do something, to contribute something, to have a long term result from their education,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to provide in this opportunity.”
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect two corrections: Jack Kennedy is a member of the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority; and Adam Sanders did work for General Motors.