This article was written with guest blogger Kathryn Morton, Coach for the FIRST® LEGO® League team the Optic Nerds.

What would it be like to live on the International Space Station (ISS) for six months? What problems do astronauts face while in long-term microgravity? What challenges are engineers working on to get man safely to and from Mars? 

These questions and more were discussed with Team #30765, The Optic Nerds, from Hanover, PA, USA, during a live down-link with the ISS and a panel discussion on September 18, held at George Washington University.

Conversation with Dr. Serena Auñon-Chancellor

2For 30 minutes, Dr. Serena Auñon-Chancellor, an astronaut currently living on the Space Station, answered questions about what life is like while in space. When the down-link began, Auñon-Chancellor floated down from the top of the screen, then flipped over to greet us “right side up.” Her long dark curly hair stretched out around her face, floating freely in microgravity.

Team member Addison asked her: “How does creativity come into play as an astronaut? Are there any artistic activities or experiments you do?”

Auñon-Chancellor responded that many astronauts take up sewing, knitting, water color, and music while on the space station.

The view up here is unmatched. We try to portray to everyone on Earth how beautiful it is up here. ~ Auñon-Chancellor

“Music is a big part of our existence up here,” she said. “There’s a lot of cables and wires and laptops and it seems like a very sterile environment, very machine-like. You hear the humming and fans whirring constantly. But the moment you insert music, any type of music, it changes the entire mood. Besides our radios on board, we have two guitars, a keyboard, a pan flute, and a recorder. We have fun on Friday and Saturday evenings playing the instruments and singing songs together. Including the Russians. We are one family up here. What we also love to do is photography. The view up here is unmatched. One of my favorites is the aurora [borealis] or northern lights, they’re those green lights in the atmosphere that seem alive. We’ll take time-lapsed photography stills and put presentations together to try to portray to everyone on Earth how beautiful it is up here.”

Other questions were asked, including how to wash one’s hair (no hot showers in space!) In response to a question about whether being an astronaut was what she always wanted to be, Auñon-Chancellor said yes, and to not listen to the nay-sayers.

Do what you want to do. If you feel like you want to do something and you’re passionate about it, make it happen. ~ Auñon-Chancellor

Preparing for Year-Long Missions, Such as to Mars

After the down-link ended, three additional team members, William, Alex and Josiah posed questions to retired astronaut Dr. Charles Camarda, who took questions from the front of the room. He spoke on issues scientists are studying in preparation of sending astronauts on year-long missions.

Health issues, like muscle atrophy (weakening), bone thinning (loss of minerals due to lack of normal muscle use), and vision impairment are still of great concern even though astronauts exercise 2 ½ hours a day. Skills learned at home can become rusty and fine motor skills can weaken, so continued training must occur while in space.

On missions further away from Earth, cosmic radiation from solar flares becomes a health risk for cancer and mutations. Emergency Medical Technician training will be necessary and on-board physicians will need to treat things like tooth aches, kidney stones and other problems.

Poor mental health due to feelings of isolation and loss of connection to Earth is also likely to occur. As Earth becomes a little dot in the window, intense loneliness will set in.

Crews must be selected who work well together and take care of one another, yet they must also be able to work alone. When connecting to support on the ground, there will be a 40-minute communication delay if our current systems aren’t improved. When problem occur that far from Earth, astronauts may need to take the lead to resolve them.

A trip to Mars will also mean working and living with robots. Astronauts need to know how to train these robots and how to use the technology created for them. 3-D printing will be used in space and astronauts will need to use elements from Mars to print with. Space travelers will need to create things for life like oxygen, water and plants, using Mars resources. Chemical propulsion will need to be developed, such as plasma fuels or nuclear energy, to shorten travel time. Although great advancements have been made in space exploration, more is needed.

In the few final moments of the discussion, team member Alex asked: “What happens to pee and poop in space and does it stink up the place?” Dr. Camarda and the audience chuckled and then we waited on the edge of our seats for the answer:

“Well, since we all lived together and we all smelled the same, we didn’t really notice it. But when the capsule returned and the door opened, it did smell!”

Check out the recording of the program to hear all the questions and insightful answers from the experts!:

The Optic Nerds also went on two field trips. One was the Udvar-Hazy Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Chantilly, VA, and the other was NASA Goddard Flight Facility in Greenbelt, MD.

Both car rides and the visit to George Washington University helped to establish team friendships and learn about the details of space suits, astronaut health problems, and life on the International Space Station.

The whole trip added to our team bonding. ~ Team Coach

Team Coach, Kathryn Morton, says that talking with Dr. Auñon-Chancellor and Dr. Camarda “is the highlight of our season so far, and the team was extremely excited and ‘pumped up’ after attending.  We have delved into several potential problems for our Project based on the information we learned there.”


Let’s hear from other teams. What have you learned about life on the ISS?

That was also a great question about creativity in space. It inspired us to compile an OOTW music playlist — and we need your help. What music would you bring with you into space? 

Share your ideas with us @firstlegoleague or email

Need help with your Project research? To assist, NASA pulled together a list of frequently asked questions and tips on how to ask an expert questions; and European Space Agency (ESA) scientists have created a series of Space Insights videos just for our FIRST LEGO League teams this season.