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News / Life / Clark County Life

Camas students ‘keep in touch’ with space through video conference with astronaut

Camas grad Michael Barratt spoke to kids from International Space Station

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian staff writer
Published: May 23, 2024, 5:20pm
9 Photos
Former Camas High School science teacher Dale Croswell, left, emcees as second grader Miles Nichols of Lacamas Elementary School asks astronaut Michael Barratt a question about space via video link. Barratt, a graduate of Camas schools, is now aboard the International Space Station and will return to Earth in the fall.
Former Camas High School science teacher Dale Croswell, left, emcees as second grader Miles Nichols of Lacamas Elementary School asks astronaut Michael Barratt a question about space via video link. Barratt, a graduate of Camas schools, is now aboard the International Space Station and will return to Earth in the fall. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

CAMAS — If growing up to be an astronaut used to be an unlikely dream, now it’s simply a “career choice,” Dr. Michael Barratt said Thursday.

“Opportunities to fly in space are so much greater now,” the astronaut told students in the Camas School District during an afternoon video conference. “Go out there and make it happen. Ask questions. Be determined,” he advised. “And, keep in touch with us.”

Keeping in touch with Barratt can be complicated. While calmly fielding questions from a dozen Camas students, he was approximately 250 miles overhead and speeding around Earth at 17,000 miles per hour. He’s now on his third visit to the International Space Station, having flown there on a SpaceX rocket in March. He’s scheduled to return this fall after about six months in orbit.

That will bring Barratt’s total accumulated time in space, after earlier missions in 2009 and 2011, to nearly 400 days.

It may be complicated, but Barratt and Camas have kept in pretty close touch since he graduated from Camas High School in 1977. He studied medicine and went to work for NASA as a project physician and flight surgeon in the early 1990s before being chosen as an astronaut in 2000.

He’s visited Camas classrooms many times, but videoconferenced from space only rarely, making Thursday’s connection a special occasion.

So special, in fact, that Barratt’s retired sixth-grade teacher, Gail Welsh, showed up and was given the honor of asking her former student a question. Barratt couldn’t see his questioners on the ground, but he could hear them — and he broke into a delighted laugh as he recognized Welsh’s voice.

“I had a string of awesome teachers (in Camas), and she was among the awesomest,” Barratt said. “It’s so good to hear your voice, Mrs. Welsh.”

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Welsh’s question may be the most popular one ever asked of astronauts: How do you go to the bathroom in space?

Barratt said there’s a bathroom aboard the International Space Station, and human waste is kept under control with airflow — powerful and noisy fans — instead of gravity.

“Those fans are not trivial bits of engineering,” he said. “When they fail, it’s a bad day for everyone.”

Yes, he added, urine is filtered and recycled back into drinking water. No. 2 is not reused, he said.

Questions from kids

Students selected from nearly all Camas schools asked questions from a conference room at the district’s headquarters while proud parents watched the video conversation in a different room.

“Do your hands and feet swell in space?” asked Isaac Sakata, a seventh grader at Liberty Middle School.

Barratt seemed glad to take a medical question. He earned his M.D. at Northwestern University, and his area of research in space is the effects of space on the human body.

Feet and hands don’t swell in space, Barratt said, because nothing is pulling bodily fluids downward in zero gravity.

“Your feet sort of anti-swell” and get smaller as those fluids go elsewhere, he said. What does tend to swell is the face.

“My face is rounder and more pumpkiny here than on the ground,” Barratt said.

Third grader Raksha Jagannath of Prune Hill Elementary School wanted to know how the recent April 8 total solar eclipse looked from space.

“It was amazing,” Barratt said.

The way astronauts observed it was by looking down and watching the enormous shadow of the moon travel across the surface of Earth.

“It was like a black hole moving at a really high speed,” he said.

But the space station was moving even faster, he said. “We overtook it and flew right over it.”

Sophie Knight, a junior at Discovery High School, was concerned about solar radiation exposure in space. Barratt said it was a timely question because huge, unexpected solar flares occurred just a few weeks ago.

Fortunately, he said, astronauts in low-Earth orbit are protected by the planet’s geomagnetic fields, as well as by the structure of the space station. Farther out in space, much more radiation protection is needed.

Fourth grader Ariana Rider of Dorothy Fox Elementary School asked if you need courage to be an astronaut. Barratt replied you do need a bit of courage, as well as a bit of fear, but balancing those out are lots of knowledge and lots of training. Those are the things an astronaut really needs to succeed, he said.

Fifth grader Everett Eilen of Helen Baller Elementary School asked about mental health in space. While that’s the subject of ongoing research, Barratt said, he also had an emphatic personal answer.

“There’s a very positive mental effect to being in space. It’s great for mental health,” he said. “I love being up here.”

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