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Detroit students talk with astronaut in space as part of aviation program

A young person speaks through a ham radio microphone on stage.

Markus Jones, a senior at Davis Aerospace Technical High School at Golightly in Detroit, speaks via ham radio to astronaut Koichi Wakata aboard the International Space Station.

Ethan Bakuli / Chalkbeat

At exactly 1:30:46 p.m. Tuesday, a group of students on Detroit’s east side made radio contact with an astronaut aboard the International Space Station, a notable feat for one of the country’s few high schools to offer an aviation curriculum. 

The space contact by students in Davis Aerospace Technical High School’s aviation program comes on the heels of an announcement last week that in a few years the school will return to its former location at the Coleman A. Young Municipal Airport, thanks to the city investing federal dollars into an upgrade at the airport.

Packed into the building’s media center, the event’s attendees — including the 13 student interviewers and members of the school’s advisory board of alumni — teemed with excitement. The precise time of the Q&A session coincided with the station’s orbital path over the United States.

The students asked a series of questions of astronaut Koichi Wakata, the honorary speaker of the day, about the daily operations and experiences astronauts have aboard the space station. During their 10-minute window, students quizzed Wakata about how astronauts clean the space station of debris, what it feels like to take off in a space shuttle, and how long the station’s batteries can last without a charge.

The event included an elaborate radio setup at the front of the room, and a pair of operators from the Hazel Park Amateur Radio Club on stage for technical assistance. 

The students’ contact with Wakata grew out of a collaboration between the Detroit school district, the high school’s advisory committee, the Amateur Radio on International Space Station program, and NASA. The partnership’s overarching goal is to encourage students’ interest in STEM fields.

The day’s event, according to retired Col. Lawrence A. Millben, the president of the high school’s advisory committee, first came from a discussion he and other members of the advisory board had about “how to get kids involved in space communication.”

Davis Aerospace moved from the city’s Coleman A. Young Municipal Airport in 2013 to the campus of the Golightly Career and Tech Center, following a decision by a state-appointed emergency manager. The school’s supporters said moving Davis out of the airport was a major blow that would damage the school’s unique offerings.  

But following a decade-long campaign by Millben and other committee members, the school is poised to return to the airport in 2025, according to city officials.

“We’re now putting the ‘space’ into Davis Aerospace,” Millben said in remarks before the students spoke with Wakata.

But the school has begun reestablishing its connections with the airport long before that reunion. Since 2019, students have been going to the airport to participate in afternoon classes centered on aviation

In recent years, for example, Davis students have trained for their remote pilot’s certification, opening the door to lucrative careers in operating aircrafts and drones. Today, about three-quarters of Davis’ students take aviation-related courses, which enrolls roughly 220 students, according to assistant principal Sybil Love.

Markus Jones, a senior at Davis Aerospace, kicked off the Q&A by asking Wakata how often astronauts have to correct the International Space Station’s path in orbit.

Markus started at the school as a freshman in 2019, the same year students started taking the aviation courses at the airport, and said “that’s where my life really started.” 

Between “seeing planes land” every day and learning about the various parts that go into aircrafts, from batteries to engines and landing gear, Markus said his time at the airport taught him “all types of phenomenal things that I never knew about.” 

Omaree Ishmael, a senior at Davis, first got wind of the opportunity to speak with Wakata last summer as a member of the school’s amateur radio club. 

Omaree, who hopes to become an aeronautical engineer for NASA, said Tuesday was “an amazing experience” and a building block to reaching his future aspirations.

Ethan Bakuli is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering Detroit Public Schools Community District. Contact Ethan at ebakuli@chalkbeat.org.

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