Space felt a little closer at the Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden in Coral Gables when Miami students took part in a live question and answered the downlink with two astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS).
Five minutes before the downlink began on April 25, more than 250 students at the BioTECH @ Richmond Heights High School watched a live screen of NASA astronauts Ricky Arnold and Drew Feustel playfully float aboard the ISS.
Audio communication was not yet established, and the botany students sat anxiously, waiting for their chance to ask questions about growing plants in space and what life was like for those modern explorers.
The anticipation grew as Fairchild director Carl Lewis spoke into the microphone.
"Station this is Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden, how do you hear me?"
He repeated the line three times without success.
As in the movies, when all hopes were lost, the voice of astronaut Ricky Arnold echoed through the room.
"We hear Coral Gables loud and clear."
The students raised their arms and cheered as the scene felt like a mission control as the rover Curiosity landed successfully on Mars.
BioTECH students have partnered with Fairchild's "Growing Beyond Earth" program, a partnership with NASA that helps students select food crops that could be suitable for growth aboard a spacecraft. A dream for many of these students is to see a plant they have helped develop to support the future of space travel.
Some of their research is already used by NASA.
"Our school is studying food crops to support research at the ISS," said Kaira Mccalister, an 11th grade veterinarian who would like to work with plants to ease overpopulation. "How do scientists on the ground help you to do science on the ISS?"
"Food research is very important to us," answered astronaut Arnold. "Our experiments are being developed by local scientists, including professionals, students and middle and high school students."
For Kaira it was a dream come true to talk to a real astronaut, even if she does not see herself one day.
"It was amazing, I never thought I could talk to one," she said. "I was shaking, I tried not to show it."
The downlink lasted only 20 minutes, but this precious time is something these students will always remember.
The astronauts even had time to joke with the students. Both Arnold and Feustel behaved like children and turned their microphone in weightlessness for the pleasure of the crowd. Asked which food plant he would grow in the International Space Station, Arnold laughed, exclaiming if he needed to pick a plant. Later he said that he was looking forward to fresh fruit the most.
Asked about the biggest challenge facing him, Feustel gave some inspiring advice to high school students who lack confidence in their grades or feel lost when it comes to what they expect from their future.
"I would say one of the challenges I overcame was my grades in high school," Feustel said. "I was struggling and it was hard to stay focused, I went to high school to get to the community college, got my grades, and finally got my Ph.D., but my biggest challenge was getting me through high school and trying to do better
11th year Matthew Herrick said he took Feustel's words to heart.
Matthew wants to be an astronaut and could not wait to open the door for the downlink – something he says does not happen during a normal school day.
As someone who struggles with his grades, Matthew said he sometimes feels intimidated considering all the achievements of the astronauts. Knowing that Feustel was having trouble at school also makes him feel that nothing is impossible.
"It felt good that someone in high school was not as good as me," Matthew said. "They have the same experiences and desires and if only I push that over, it's only good to know that they are just like me."