Shoffner answers students’ questions from space

Published 12:41 pm Tuesday, May 30, 2023

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On Friday, a hushed crowd gathered in the Middlesboro High School Auditorium to speak with John Shoffner as he answered questions live from the International Space Station via Zoom.

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Shoffner, a Middlesboro native who lives in Knoxville, is aboard the SpaceX Dragon on Axiom Space’s 12-day mission to the International Space Station. Astronaut Peggy Whitson is the mission commander. Axiom Mission 2 is the organization’s second private mission to the ISS and will support its goal of creating the world’s first commercial space station.

Live from the ISS, Shoffner began a series of demonstrations for the students in his hometown. Students were given ping pong balls to drop on command. When they did, Shoffner also dropped one, also. His, however, did not hit the floor. Instead, to the amazement of the audience, the ball floated due to the low gravity.

Shoffner then took questions from the students in Middlesboro.

Question: “Could you tell us a little bit about your reentry process as you come back to Earth?”

Answer: “Well, that’s one of the processes I’m kind of looking forward to. The whole process of re-entry is slowing down the spacecraft. Right now, we’re traveling 17,500 miles per hour. And to re-enter, we have to cut the speed significantly in order for Earth’s gravity to begin to pull us down. So as we slow down our orbital speed, gravity takes a stronger grip on us on the dragon spacecraft and will pull us down to Earth. And as we drop into the upper atmosphere, the drag on the craft from the air molecules will slow us down even more. Just like when you stick your handout the window, you can feel that. So that’s how the Dragon is pulled back down to Earth. And we fall through the atmosphere just like a skydiver. And about 20-30 thousand feet, we open a drop sheet, slows us down further, and then at about 5-6 thousand feet, we open the main parachute and we float down and land in the water–nice and soft.”

Question: “Can you share a little insight as to that and maybe space tricks that you’ve learned while you’re up there?”

Answer: “Our orbital speed is so fast, we’re simply falling, just like we jumped out an airplane.”

Question: “We see pictures looking down from the space station on Earth. What has that been like for you to see those images in person?”

Answer: “Well, it’s been absolutely fantastic. I know that I was dreaming about space since I was 8, 9, 10 years old, and I’ve always wanted to be in space or be an astronaut, experience spaceflight and participate in the space industry as it grows up. So we’re in a new era now of spaceflight development. And that’s what’s allowed me to come, giving me the opportunity to be here. But once I came, it was absolutely fantastic.You see the Earth, the full curvature of the Earth, brilliant blue water and bright white clouds and continents go by. And then you see above it, then the wisp of atmosphere that we have around our planet, and it’s just so sparkling in all its colors. And then you have the deep blackness of space that our planet is just hanging there. It’s just literally hanging there. And it’s so beautiful, it literally takes your breath away.”

Question: “John, can you describe to us what the launch experience was like? That had to be exhilarating the G Forces that you experienced during that?”

Answer: “Yes, of course it was. That’s what everyone wants to think about is what would it feel like to launch on a rocket? Well, it was pretty cool. Of course, at T minus zero, when they ignite the engines, you’re sitting there, you feel a slight rumble starting. You’re sure that it’s what it is. And it is. It’s a little bit more rumbly. And then you suddenly feel yourself lifting. You just lift, and then it gets stronger and stronger. And as you accelerate, you feel the pressure and it continues all the way to orbit. There are a couple of stage events where the rocket separates and you go to stage two. And then finally, at the right altitude and velocity, once we’ve accelerated, the Dragon capsule just pops off the end and we are in orbit. And that’s where we are. We’ve just been thrown into orbit by our rocket.”

Question: “John, if you have any downtime on the station, what type of things are you able to do while you’re up there?”

Answer: “Well, unfortunately, we haven’t had a lot of downtime. We’ve been really busy. We brought up a lot of workload. I’ve been doing a lot of videos for STEM classes to bring back the students… But when we do have downtime, several things, actually. We like to go hang out in the cupola, take some pictures, look around, watch the world go by. Quite literally, every 90 minutes, we circle here.”