These students flip over their video chat with the first Cuban-American in space

Like counting down to a rocket launch, all eyes were on the enlarged screen above, waiting for confirmation from Mission Control Houston.

But these weren’t rocket scientists. They were elementary school kids, sitting on gymnastics mats in socks, awaiting their video chat to connect to outer space.

“Hello Mandelstam School, this is the International Space Station. Welcome!”

Cheers erupted. After months of planning, there was a successful connection with Dr. Serena Auñon-Chancellor, the first Cuban-American in space, available to talk about life aboard the ISS and awe her audience with zero-gravity tricks.

The Mandelstam School, a South Miami private gymnastics school formerly part of the Gulliver Schools network, spent months putting together a lengthy application to win 20 minutes of video chat time with an astronaut through NASA’s Downlink program based at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The school had a personal connection: It’s cultural liaison, Magdalena Maury, is Auñon-Chancellor’s cousin. But because Auñon-Chancellor’s intense studies and training took her as far away as Antarctica, Friday was the first time Maury had met her cousin.

“I just think it’s amazing that given our history — we came from Cuba — that we were able to have a family member that accomplished so much and worked so hard,” Maury said. “And I try to instill that in the children.”

A first-grader named Lola asked Auñon-Chancellor what her favorite job is aboard the space station.

“My favorite job up here is actually floating to work everywhere I go,” said Auñon-Chancellor, her dark curls wafting above her head. “In fact I can flip my feet up and talk to you just like this. I can talk to you upside down if i want to!”

The crowd oohed and aahed. The students, who spend at least an hour and a half every day practicing gymnastics, marveled at how Auñon-Chancellor effortlessly contorted.

“Up here it was getting used to not holding on to everything with your hands all the time,” she explained. “We become much more graceful ballerinas up here. Your brain learns very quickly.”

One by one, the students shared their curiosities about life in space.

When you return to Earth, does it take long for your body to adjust to gravity? Does food taste the same in space? What animals are up in space? Do stars look different?

“I sure hope my hair comes back down,” she said, complaining it has gotten long and floats in zero gravity.

Astronauts don’t get a lot of crunchy food. “We would love to get a crunchy taco up here,” said Auñon-Chancellor, who says she also craves cheeseburgers.

SpaceX will bring 40 mice aboard the ISS tomorrow, she said. And stars look the same, maybe a little brighter.

But when all the lights are off in the station, the view through the cupola, or window, is breathtaking, said Auñon-Chancellor. Beyond Earth is the vastness of the Milky Way galaxy.

“It’s called perspective,” she said. “It gives you a different perspective on our planet.”

Time was up. “Good luck!” Auñon-Chancellor signed off before boosting herself above the camera view.

“It was cool to see her, how she does it. And she doesn’t have to practice, she just has to be confident to do it,” said fourth grader Mika Ringle, 9, talking about Auñon-Chancellor’s gymnastics. “Us, we need lots of practice down here.”

Downlinks are offered free of charge to any educational organization, including schools, libraries and museums, that submit a competitive application and are reviewed by a committee of former educators. Fairchild Tropical Botanical Gardens held a downlink session back in April.

Scott Black, an education coordinator at the Johnson Space Center, said the Mandelstam School’s application was thorough. The school also invited a class from St. Thomas Episcopal Parish School across the street.

“The educational plan and programs that they had put together for their students was the big thing that really stuck out,” Black said. “You could see that it wasn’t just ideas that they would like to do, they were plans that they were actually ready to put in place.”

Beyond Friday’s video chat session, students will be able to experience a replica of the ISS right at school. Science teacher Vicki Koller transformed her classroom into a functional lab, as if they were on the ISS working alongside Auñon-Chancellor.

Near tracings of switchboards and panels were drawn on the wall in crayon. Ceiling tiles removed to reveal space-like duct work. There was a working shop vac and water reclamation center to mimic how bathing works in space.

Students even had to place their pencils on duct tape and keep their feet placed under the railing below the desk to avoid “floating away.”

“The idea was to make stations in this classroom that the students could relate to in everyday life,” said Koller. “It’s not just for show.”

Contact Colleen Wright at 305-376-3003 and @Colleen_Wright.