San Antonio’s future space explorers connect with astronauts on the International Space Station

Long before Siddhi Raut was born, her scientist parents bought a telescope. Throughout her childhood, the 15-year-old has peered through it to catch glimpses of the moon and stars.

On Wednesday, as part of a day-long series of events for space-loving students at the San Antonio Museum of Science and Technology, Raut was able to get a little bit closer to her goal of becoming an astrophysicist.

She was among a handful of students participating in a hands-on space exploration technology development program who got the chance to ask astronauts on board the International Space Station a question, then hear their responses.

“When I heard of this opportunity, I just knew that I had to do this,” said Raut, a rising sophomore at Ronald Reagan High School. “Just the thought of astronauts looking at my face, I was really excited.”

Students in the three-year program, called Lunar Caves Analog Test Sites, or LCATS, were able to pre-record videos of themselves asking a question about space. During Wednesday’s “Space Fest” at the museum, the videos were shown to astronauts zooming high above the Earth at more than 17,000 miles per hour, who answered the questions via a video livestream.

American astronauts Megan McArthur and Shane Kimbrough, along with French astronaut Thomas Pesquet, appeared on a giant screen, their hair and clothes looking weightless in one of the space station’s cramped chambers.

Artemis Academy student Penny Pim, 11, takes a picture as she and her mother, Talia, listen to astronauts Megan McArthur and Shane Kimbrough of the United States and Thomas Pesquet of France, who spoke from the International Space Station as part of the WEX Foundation’s Space Fest 2021 on Wednesday.

Kin Man Hui /Staff photographer

“It’s insane that I was born this century to be able to speak to people who are actually orbiting the Earth,” said Emmett Decker, 16, another LCATS student, who asked the astronauts about the effects that space travel could have on humanity.

“It was a very unique experience,” Decker, who will be a junior at Legacy of Educational Excellence High School, said. “I couldn’t believe it was actually happening.”

The LCATS program is open to any student in San Antonio between the ages of 12 and 18. They work on projects meant to solve real-world space exploration technology problems. Activities include building robots and lunar dust measurement instruments, working with 3D printers and creating designs for potential lunar habitats.

“This generation is the generation that’s going to be the boots on the ground on those planets, on those habitats, those bases and those space stations,” said Sam Ximenes, a space architect and founder of the WEX Foundation, a San Antonio nonprofit that runs the LCATS program and is dedicated to advancing science education through space-related projects.