Sorensen brings out-of-this-world guest to the Quad-Cities

Hearing from an astronaut that the earth looks like a blue marble from space can make a first-grader’s day.

U.S. Rep. Eric Sorensen, D-Illinois, visited Moline this week with an out-of-this-world guest: NASA astronaut Kate Rubins. 

The two hosted a forum at Black Hawk College on Wednesday night, then stopped Thursday morning at Hamilton Elementary School, aiming to “inspire the next generation” of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) professionals. 

Mrs. Arika Faith’s first-grade classroom welcome NASA astronaut Kate Rubins and Rep. Eric Sorensen (IL-17) during their visit to Hamilton Elementary School in Moline on Thursday. 

Olivia Allen

“In 20 years, when we’re sending the first humans to Mars, where are those people today? They’re going to be in a first-grade classroom,” Sorensen said. “If we don’t inspire kids at the elementary level to say, ‘I want to be an astronaut when I grow up,’ we won’t have them.”   

Sorensen serves as the ranking member on the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics. A Moline resident who lives a few blocks from Hamilton, the congressman jumped at the chance to bring an established NASA astronaut “home.” 

“I would love to be able to say that our next astronauts were graduates of Hamilton,” Sorensen said. “My job is to make sure that these kids have everything they need to succeed at whatever they want to do when they grow up, and that’s why I wanted to bring this astronaut here today.” 

To prepare for Rubins’ visit, Arika Faith’s first-grade class did its homework.

On the YouTube channel “Story Time From Space,” the students watched NASA astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor narrate, “If I Were an Astronaut” by Eric Braun aboard Expedition 56. 

If first-grader Ezriel Hultgren were an astronaut, he said, it would be, “cool.” 

“I would get to see planets in real life and get to discover new stars and new planets,” the 7-year-old said. 

When Rubins introduced herself to the class, she asked a simple — but enticing — question: “Does anybody have any questions about space?” 

One student asked, “How did you become an astronaut?” Rubins replied that her journey began with her love of biology. 

Several Hamilton first-graders perked up for the next question, which was, “What do you see in space?” 

Having spent 300 days total in space — the fourth most out of all U.S. female astronauts — Rubins was well-prepared to answer. She said the International Space Station (ISS) orbits Earth 16 times a day and those onboard the ISS can see the “whole milky way.” 

“To me, it (Earth) looked like a blue marble, or a blue ball, but it was really bright,” Rubins said. “All the light coming from the sun reflects off the Earth’s surface. Sometimes you have to wear sunglasses to look at it, and it’s very blue.” 

The description of Earth from space was the most interesting takeaway for 7-year-old Norah Montague. She and 6-year-old Maleah Hogren agreed they weren’t sure about being astronauts someday, but they came to the consensus that going to space would be “cool, but kind of crazy.” 

When Rubins spoke about the dehydrated food astronauts eat in space, nearly all students gasped when hearing flavors like chocolate cake, ice cream and barbecued beef. 

The classmates also were excited to hear of NASA’s return to the moon in 2025 with Artemis III and the next planetary quest — Mars.  

“It’s going to be tough to make it (Mars) habitable. But you know what? We’re going to go there, and you guys could be working on those jobs,” Rubins said. ”That’d be right around the time you could be a scientist or engineer at NASA. I have a feeling that some of you are going to be astronauts. I think you can do it.” 

Sorensen gave the class a brief glimpse into his former career field, meteorology, and explained its relationship with space exploration. 

“When you think about the weather, we’re at the bottom of the weather, right? Well, astronauts get to see the top,” he said before drawing an analogy between Earth and an apple. “The atmosphere that protects us from space — it’s only as big as the skin on that apple. Not very many people have been outside the skin of the apple, so that’s why we need to take care of our Earth.” 

Rubins joined NASA in 2009, one of nine selected in the 20th NASA astronaut class. During her career, she’s completed two spaceflight missions — Expeditions 48 and 49 — and four spacewalks.

In 2016, Rubins became the first person to sequence DNA in space. She also grew heart cells and performed other micro-experiments in orbit. Most recently, she served as a flight engineer for Expedition 63 and 64 aboard the ISS. 

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April 13, 2023 at 11:03PM

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