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Oak Ridge students make out-of-this-world connection with Minnesota astronaut

The third-grade space and science unit at Oak Ridge School of Leadership, Environmental and Health Sciences got more hands-on May 18 when students connected live with a local astronaut aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

Pre-recorded questions from Jessica Santiago’s third-grade students were sent 248 miles above Earth and up to the ISS where they were answered by NASA Expedition 65 astronaut Mark Vande Hei – a Minnesota native. Vande Hei is currently serving as a flight engineer on the ISS. Santiago said her students have been engaged in an in-depth unit about space study and exploration in anticipation of the conversation.

“We are so excited for our students to extend their solar system learning to real life,” Santiago said. “They can’t wait to hear answers to their thoughtful questions from a Minnesota astronaut in space.”

Mark Vande Hei's parents talk with a class at Oak Ridge.

Astronaut Mark Vande Hei's parents, Thomas and Mary, answered questions during their visit to Oak Ridge.

The interview was made possible through NASA’s Office of STEM Engagement, which provides students with an opportunity to engage in NASA’s mission of space exploration and authentic science, technology, engineering and math experiences. The event was broadcast live to the entire school and aired on NASA TV.  

“We are grateful for this opportunity to exchange ideas and fuel curiosity,” said Oak Ridge Principal Dr. Cathy Kindem. “We want to guide students on paths of discovery, and this is an amazing opportunity for our scholars to learn more about STEM fields and empower students to build critical thinking skills.”

NASA Expedition 65 launched in April and will conclude in October. During this mission, crew members will focus on experiments and investigations on biology, ultrasound technology and install new roll-out solar arrays using a design originally tested on the ISS several years ago.

To watch the rebroadcast of the question-and-answer event, visit