December 21, 2020—Twenty years ago today, fourteen students at the Luther Burbank School, in Burbank, Illinois USA stepped up to the microphone, held by ARISS mentor Charlie Sufana, AJ9N, and made history.  When it was all over, the ARISS team conducted its first ever ISS school contact, enabling students at Luther Burbank to ask ISS Commander Bill Shepherd, KD5GSL, questions about living and working in space and to hear Commander Shepherd’s answers.

Notably, the first contact did not go exactly as planned.  The first contact attempt, scheduled for December 19, failed.  Luther Burbank lead teacher Rita Wright, KC9CDL, details the school’s entire ARISS contact experience in a paper is entitled “Remember, We’re Pioneers!”  The paper title commemorates the statement “Remember, we’re pioneers” made by one of the Burbank eighth grade students to teacher Rita Wright shortly after the crushing disappointment of that failed contact attempt.

Two days later, on December 21, 2000, the ARISS connection went a lot differently.  At 20:28 UTC, Astronaut Bill Shepherd on ISS called out “Alpha Juliet 9 November NA1SS we have you readable. Go ahead.”  Student Jessica Lehocky stepped up to the microphone and asked Commander Shepherd “What emotions did you feel as you boarded the Soyuz rocket?”  Eleven minutes later, all 14 students received answers to their questions. Jessica was able to ask an additional question. And lead teacher Rita Wright sent her thanks to Commander Shepherd on behalf of the students and faculty at Burbank. 

The first ARISS school contact was finally a success!  ARISS school contacts were now fully operational, starting a 20 year journey of inspiring, engaging and educating our next generation of explorers.  But, after 20 years, what has happened to the students and faculty at Burbank?

Burbank Student Jessica Lehocky asks Commander Bill Shepherd first ARISS Question

Burbank Contact Retrospective and STEAM Impact

In June 2020, I challenged ARISS Mentor Charlie Sufana, AJ9N to contact some of the Burbank students to get their impressions of the ARISS experience and understand how the contact impacted their lives. Despite the huge challenge of finding students 20 years later, Charlie rose to the challenge and significantly exceeded my expectations. On November 22, 2020, Charlie sponsored a Zoom reunion with 24 Burbank contact alumni In attendance, including 5 of the 14 students that talked to Commander Shepherd, several students that supported the contact by developing the questions, several Burbank teachers that supported the contact, including lead teacher Rita Wright, hams who helped with the contact, parents involved in the contact setup, and the school Principal, Robert Mocek.

Some observations from the Zoom Reunion and Charlie’s pre-reunion research:

  • The reunion and the showing of the contact video elicited many emotions 20 years later—some choked up while talking and tears were flowing down several reunion members faces.
  • Most of the students attending received college degrees and are now in STEAM careers. 
  • Some student careers include:  Physicist (PhD), Doctor of Audiology (with a practice in Illinois), Nurse, CPA, Navy Contract Specialist, Special Education Teacher (3rd and 4th grade), Pharmaceutical Laboratory Test Manager for Infant Gene Therapy, Quality Manager at a Paper Products Company. 
  • Student Keith Taddei wrote the letter (below) just a few weeks before the contact.  While not an astronaut (presently), Dr. Taddei received his PhD in Physics and is now a Staff Scientist at the Oak Ridge National Labs.  His current research employs neutron scattering to study superconductors, magnetic Weyl semimetals and magnetic phase transitions.
  • Student Brittany Lukasik was in the 1st grade and was the youngest student to ask Bill Shepherd a question.  Britanny said “the ARISS experience influenced my life.”  She received her B.S. degree in Nursing and is now a nurse in Florida.
  • Several Burbank students moved to the Space Coast and think about their ARISS contact every time they see a launch
  • After the contact, at least 3 of the adults that attended got their amateur radio licenses, including the teacher, Rita Wright.
  • Principal Bob Mocek said that the ARISS event at Burbank 20 years ago “Was the best thing he ever did as an educator in his 40 years in education”
  • Maureen O’Brien, a teacher, stated that “We did so much in the classroom leading up to the contact.  We were given the creative freedom to develop lessons based on our grade level and subject matter.  The teachers were engaged at all grade levels (K-8) and all study subjects”
  • Teacher Susan McNichols stated: “I pulled out the scrapbook on the Burbank ARISS experience and I still get emotional about it 20 years later” 
  • In 2012, Susan McNichols organized a ARISS contact with astronaut Don Petit for the Liberty Jr High School, where she is teaching now.

Burbank was our first ARISS school contact. Twenty years later, ARISS has performed over 1,300 of these contacts with schools, libraries, scout groups and museums. If our educational impact with each of these 1,300+ schools is commensurate with the impact observed at Burbank, then all I can say is: WOW!!!

The ARISS team wishes the students, teachers, and all the families that participated in the Burbank ARISS contact on December 21, 2000 a Happy 20th Anniversary!! And to the students (now adults): Keep Exploring!!

Ad Astra! (To the Stars!)
Frank Bauer, KA3HDO
ARISS International Chairman