The moment finally arrives: over 100 pupils are connected with the ISS live via video conference. Up in space, German ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer unrolls a 10-metre-long strip of pictures, featuring self-portraits from a number of pupils. These hand-drawn 'class selfies' are arranged so that they appear to be standing in a long line, holding hands – one child with another, one class with the next. The online event on 14 January 2022 marked the culmination of the 'Hand in hand around the world' campaign, launched for primary schools by the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) one year ago.
Over 1000 children took part, including the selected classes from the seven schools that took part in the live transmission from space. At the start of the broadcast, Maurer spoke about how well the project relates to his current space mission: "The 'Hand in hand around the world' initiative shows that we can achieve so much more if we work together peacefully."
Matthias Maurer answers questions from schoolchildren
For the pupils involved, it was not simply a matter of looking and listening; they also had the opportunity to ask Maurer questions. "Which bits of Earth can you see when you look out of the window?” asked pupils from Viktoria Püttlingen School in the Saarland region. Why does water form a sphere when it floats in microgravity?" went the question from Hinsbeck School in Essen. The live broadcast was moderated by Sina Kürtz and Lisa Schüttler from DLR's Education and Outreach programme. They phoned in live from the Space Operations Center at DLR in Oberpfaffenhofen to coordinate questions from schoolchildren in Bremen, Hessen, Lower Saxony, North Rhine-Westphalia, Thuringia and the Saarland.
Anke Kaysser-Pyzalla, Chair of the DLR Executive Board, also contributed to the online event: "In microgravity it is possible to conduct experiments that cannot be carried out on Earth," she told the children, conveying the fascination of space, research and technology. "And it's not just the ISS up there, either. Satellites observe our planet around the clock – they provide us with vast amounts of important data, for example about our atmosphere, the condition of our forests and waters. So we know what we need to do to better protect and preserve our environment. Studying and finding out about all this is really exciting."
Frank Fischer added that degrees are not the only route to a good career; apprenticeships also offer interesting prospects. As Director of the DLR_School_Lab Braunschweig – one of 15 student laboratories at DLR – he has been in charge of the 'Hand in hand around the world' campaign from the outset. The metal container for the picture strip was manufactured under his guidance in the training workshop in Braunschweig. The strip is made from a special type of fabric, printed with 30 of the submitted class selfies in a long row. The tin-sized container also contains a USB stick on which all the other entries are saved in electronic form. The class selfies travelled up into space on board an ISS resupply mission alongside various scientific experiments.
Pictures to come back to the schools – with a certificate
"In addition to inspiring children about technology, the campaign also aims to promote social cohesion and fair cooperation in these complicated times," says Volker Kratzenberg-Annies, DLR Executive Board representative for Education and Outreach. "Despite the difficult situation, the children and the teachers did a great job. At the time the pictures were created, a year ago, many of the pupils were attending school virtually, so in some cases the individual self-portraits had to be painstakingly assembled by the teachers to form a complete picture. On top of that, a lot of organisational and technical work had to be carried out ahead of the video conference, as people joined from many different locations – including the ISS. This presented a real challenge given the current situation in schools."
In a few weeks, the strip of images will return to Earth in a space capsule. The schools whose printed pictures went on the spaceflight will then receive their section of the textile banner together with a certificate, as official confirmation that their pictures journeyed to space and back. "And of course, all of the other schools that took part will also receive a certificate for their digital flight," says Kratzenberg-Annies.