RICHMOND — "Out of all the skills you have obtained in training, which has assisted you the most in your adventures and how do you use these specific skills?"
As those words were spoken by Lincoln County sixth-grade student Kyle Hampton on Friday, they were broadcast off the planet and up to the International Space Station, where astronaut Tom Marshburn was waiting to answer.
Hampton was one of 23 Kentucky middle school students chosen for the opportunity to pose a question to an astronaut in space during a special event co-sponsored by Eastern Kentucky University Kentucky Educational Television, "From the Bluegrass to the Blue Marble: Systems in Space."
About 160 middle school students — along with teachers, tech crews and media — piled into EKU's Hummel Planetarium Friday morning for the 20-minute video connection to the ISS, known as a "downlink."
NASA selected the newly renovated planetarium as one of only six downlink sites nationwide.
As the video feed from the ISS was projected onto the dome of the planetarium, Marshburn responded to Hampton's question by explaining that training for going to space really begins very early in life.
"I would say training for working in space starts at your age or even before — learning how to learn," he said. "It's not so much exactly what you're studying right now, but if you're really good at what you do and try to do the best that you can, then you're learning how to get good at something and so whenever you're faced with something new on the space station — which happens, you know, many times a day, you can learn from it, you can even get better.
"And that is one of the skills I think that's very important to develop early and certainly the most useful one that I've found here on the space station."
Hampton earned his chance to speak into space by submitting his question and a short essay. Only students who are considered gifted and talented in the area of math or science were eligible to submit questions and essays, said Gwen Lawson, academic program consultant at McGuffey.
Every one of the 46 area schools that participated in the program narrowed their lists of entries to a select few, and those students' questions were then submitted for evaluation.
Out of more than 100 questions that made it past the first round of cuts, Hampton's question about training wound up ranked 16th, Lawson said.
All students whose questions made the initial cut also worked on a math-and-science project in the weeks leading up to the event at EKU.
The three-student team from McGuffey of Hampton, Emma King and Anna Lane and the four-student team from Lincoln Middle School of Hannah Pendleton, Kendrew Scott, Roby Mullins and Jacie Williams both constructed solar ovens with the goal of melting a s'more.
The 46 school projects were on display at EKU following the ISS downlink, as judges circulated around the entries and graded them.
The McGuffey team, which managed to generate temperatures as high as 29 degrees Celsius (84 Fahrenheit), earned an honorable mention from the judges, Lawson said.
"They did an awesome job," she said. "They built the whole thing from scratch themselves. They got online and researched solar ovens."
Pendleton, an eighth-grade student, said the middle school team had trouble getting their oven to heat up because they were using an energy-efficient light bulb.
"It would have worked if we had had a better bulb or if we could have used the sun," she said. "But it was always rainy and gross."
Despite the cool results, Scott said completing the project was fun because he and the other three middle school students got to know each other well. And there was the fact that s'mores were involved to consider as well, he added.
"I think some of us were in it for the food," he said with a smile.
King said the McGuffey group tried multiple ways to make their solar oven work, reconfiguring their strategies every time it didn't work quite right.
Lane said she couldn't pick out one part of the whole experience as her favorite.
"I just had a blast doing it all," she said. "It was just fun creating it and doing it over."