As she sat onstage at a small desk in her school cafeteria, 9-year-old Erica Fitzgerald struggled to control her nerves.
Hundreds of her South Park Elementary School classmates were watching her. She was worried about a basketball game later that day. And she was about to talk, live, to an astronaut currently orbiting Earth in the International Space Station.
After a few minutes of waiting, Erica spoke into a phone that connected to a ham radio in Maryland that beamed her question straight into outer space: "What kind of subjects should I study if I want to become an astronaut? Over."
The reply from Lt. Col. E. Michael Fincke, commander of the International Space Station and Emsworth native, came immediately but soon became garbled.
Nonetheless, the students could clearly make out the words "science and math" and "what really matters is what makes you happy."
South Park Elementary applied five months ago to participate in NASA's Teaching From Space program after learning that a Pittsburgher would be commanding the space station.
Any school can apply for the program on NASA's Web site, but South Park's chances were probably helped because a parent there is an acquaintance of Col. Fincke's family.
When South Park found out that it had been chosen to participate, the school held a contest among hundreds of students to choose 12 to ask Col. Fincke questions.
"What an experience," said Principal Rob Furman. "They'll remember this for the rest of their lives."
Col. Fincke graduated from Sewickley Academy and last month became the first man to wave a Terrible Towel in space -- a video that South Park showed its students in preparation for the space chat.
He will also be doing a video in-flight downlink March 12 with Sewickley Academy at the Carnegie Science Center.
Despite the fact that two Pittsburgh schools are speaking to astronauts within a month, such opportunities are fairly rare. The numbers range depending on space station schedules, but only four to five schools in the country have a video downlink in a six-month period, said Rene Flores, an education specialist at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Individual astronauts essentially do the ham radio conversations during their free time, said Matthew Keil, also an education specialist in Houston, and rarely talk to more than two schools per week.
"It was pretty amazing," said Bret Leydig, 9, who asked Col. Fincke, "What would happen if you dropped something during a space walk?"
Though it was difficult to hear Col. Fincke's response, Bret was pretty sure he said that anything he dropped might hit a satellite.
It was easy to think of questions, said Bret, who also hoped to ask "What would you do if the ship's engine broke down," but ran out of time.
The South Park students couldn't see Col. Fincke but could see the location of the space station on a large projection screen above the stage.
Astronauts have been talking to schools from space via ham radio since 1983, said Mr. Keil, and started doing video in 2001.
At South Park yesterday, student questions were both lofty ("How will your research in space help mankind?") and practical ("How do you keep food on your plate?").
And while most of the time, the students couldn't make out the answers, they knew that they'd experienced something significant.
"You couldn't understand what he said but he could hear us," said Erica. "It's a once in a lifetime opportunity."
Anya Sostek can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1308.