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.
The Salem group didn't win the competition, but the students were awed by the overall experience.
"It's pretty awesome they're up in space and we can see it here," said Collins eighth-grader Isaac Morales, who sat in the front row of the auditorium with the other kids from CyberSpace.
"Everybody did a fantastic job," said Walker, whose voice was at times muffled, and whose picture on the live feed lost its connection several times.
"What a great day this has been here up on the Space Station," she said.
In the auditorium, retired NASA astronaut Jeff Hoffman, who is now an MIT professor in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, also addressed the students and recounted a little bit about his space exploration days.
Hoffman, who has been on five space missions, explained that the International Space Station is 200 miles from the earth's surface, travels at 18,000 miles per hour and orbits Earth every 90 minutes.
"We learned about the Space Station going around the Earth pretty quick," Junior said at the competition.
The Salem students were accompanied yesterday by Salem CyberSpace director Linda Saris; their Summer of Innovation instructor Ned Dawes, who is an engineering teacher at Marblehead Veterans Middle School; and mentor Andrew Wimmer, an MIT junior studying aerospace engineering.
During the summer program, the students tackled everything from bottle rockets to cars.
"I built a mini-car out of three index cards, a straw and paperclips," Anna said, "and it had to go down a ramp and get all the way down."
Junior and Joseph Nunes, an eighth-grader at Collins, designed and constructed a parachute that safely carried an egg in a container during an egg drop.
Salem CyberSpace received a $1,700 grant from the Massachusetts Afterschool Partnership to run the Zero Robotics program. To fund staffing and field trips, the grant was supplemented by $2,000 from the Norman H. Read Charitable Trust, plus a $500 donation from the North Shore Technology Council.
NASA is partnering with some states to implement this pilot program to address math and science education needs.
In yesterday's competition, middle school students from the Malden YMCA placed first, the Timilty Middle School in Boston came in second, and the Lynn YMCA placed third.
The other Salem students who participated in the Summer of Innovation at Salem CyberSpace are Denise McIntyre, Shauna Hunt, Daniel Darmody, Kevin Melo, Arianys Segura and Elisondro Vargas.