By Janis Fontaine
Christopher Andersson is one curious kid! And his parents couldn’t be prouder.
In November, a dozen children from Palm Beach County were invited to talk to Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli aboard the International Space Station via ham radio at a live talkback at the South Florida Science Center and Aquarium in West Palm Beach. The special event coincided with the center’s 5,000-square-foot exhibition, Astronaut.
One of the lucky ones was Christopher, 7, a second-grader at Saint Andrews School in Boca Raton, his hometown. The students were invited based on essays they wrote about what question they’d ask an astronaut, which were judged by teachers based on their writing, creativity and enthusiasm for the subject.
Christopher’s question was: “What is the most unexpected discovery you have made when doing your science experiments on the International Space Station?”
Christopher’s dad, Leif Andersson, says that the question was born out of a slime-making experiment.
“I didn’t know what would happen,” Christopher said about the day he was “playing around” in his home chemistry lab. By mixing a few substances together, he discovered slime. It was a jumping off point for a discussion about how many important discoveries start with people saying, “I wonder what would happen …”
Christopher’s question was intriguing, so judges put it at the top of the list. That meant the boy in the blue blazer was first at the mic, which would have intimidated a teenager, but he did great.
When the astronaut finally answered — the ISS is an average of 240 miles above the Earth hurtling by at 17,600 miles per hour — the audio was difficult to hear, so Christopher’s dad explained the answer to him later.
Nespoli told the students that he was surprised to find that fire didn’t behave exactly the way the astronauts expected. Scientists always believed that fire couldn’t be sustained in very cold temperatures: Heat is one of the three requirements for fire, along with fuel and oxygen. The astronauts found fire still burned at lower temperatures than they’d expected.
The unexpected is what keeps scientists’ hearts beating, the same way the unknown keeps Christopher’s curiosity marching along.
Christopher and the other students were also among the first to see the new exhibition, Astronaut, Your Journey Begins on Earth, which opened at the Science Center in October and runs through April 22.
The exhibit is designed to show visitors what it would be like to live in space. How do astronauts eat? How do they sleep? How do they, ahem, use the bathroom in gravity-free space? (You know you’ve been wondering about that.)
The exhibit features interactive games and displays that simulate a rocket launch and show how to plant and grow a space garden. You can even take a spin in the G-force simulator and see if you’ve got “the right stuff,” then find out what job you’d have on a space mission by taking a personality quiz.
Christopher said his favorite part was playing with the vending machines that offered “space food” choices.
After school, the soon-to-be 8-year-old stretches his creative muscles at Saint Andrews robotics club, a highlight of his week, and on the chess team. He pushes himself physically playing goalie on his ice hockey team and as a member of the swim team. Christopher says he doesn’t want to be an astronaut, but he would like to support astronauts in some capacity back here on terra firma. But for right now, Saint Andrews is just the spot for a curious kid with a passion for science.
The South Florida Science Center and Aquarium is at 4801 Dreher Trail North, West Palm Beach. Admission is $16.95 for adults, $14.95 for seniors ages 60-plus, $12.95 for ages 3-12 and free for younger than 3 and for members. On the web at www.sfsciencecenter.org.