A group of Salem middle school students gazed up at astronaut Shannon Walker yesterday as she floated around the International Space Station and spoke to them through a microphone.
A live feed from outer space to MIT in Cambridge enabled the students to watch the astronaut as she raced robots that the students had programmed.
"Wow, that could be me one day," said Junior Martinez, who is entering seventh grade at Collins Middle School.
Yesterday's event at MIT was the culmination of the NASA Summer of Innovation grant program, in which 10 Boston-area youth programs participated, including Salem CyberSpace, a nonprofit aimed at furthering educational opportunities.
For a month, 10 Salem students met daily to study math and engineering, learn about space exploration and physics, and carry out various projects, the largest of which was to program software for robots called SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites).
"We program codes to make them go to different areas on the game mat," said Anna Warnock, 11, an incoming seventh-grader at Nathaniel Bowditch School. "At first, it was hard, but it got a lot easier. ... It made me realize I was a lot better at engineering than I thought I was."
The students gathered in an auditorium at MIT yesterday, and everyone cheered once the live connection was established and Walker, the astronaut, who could be seen on two giant screens with her ponytail floating weightlessly above her head.
For roughly two hours, Walker arranged races between the SPHERES in space — two robots at a time. She placed the bowling ball-sized spheres in midair and then set them on their course as they moved independently around a room of the Space Station.
Students cheered for their SPHERES as each orb exited a gate area, moved across the room, rested in a "dock" and navigated itself to the finish zone.