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Nyberg pays long distance visit to alma mater

Her long, blonde hair floating above her in the zero gravity environment of the International Space Station, Dr. Karen Nyberg answers questions from Henning students and faculty members from the Henning gymnasium last Wednesday.

Floating 250 miles above the Earth, Dr. Karen Nyberg was able to reach out last Wednesday to her family, friends and fans in Henning for a 20-minute chat.

Thanks to a downlink from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, the 44-year old astronaut was able to field NASA-approved questions posed by students and members of the Henning Faculty. They ranged from queries about her zero gravity address aboard the International Space Station (ISS) to the wonders of space itself.

Nyberg called life aboard the space station a “really, really good geography lesson” because she does not always know for sure what part of the Earth the station is passing over so she has to check. In addition to Earth-watching she enjoys zipping around the station using hand rails.

The space station is far from a playground as up to 150 experiments can be ongoing at any one time. Nyberg said some of the experiments are performed by the astronauts but others are completely controlled by the ground.

“There is a lot going on and it’s all going well and I think the scientists on Earth are learning a lot and are pretty excited about what they are learning,” Nyberg said.

Henning school officials did not pull their punches when they applied to NASA for the opportunity to talk with Nyberg aboard the space station according the Henning Principal Tom Williams. The community is as proud of Nyberg as she is of them.

Williams said Nyberg has visited the Henning school personally to speak with the student body but he believes the chance to see where their famous alumni is currently working may inspire dreams.

“She has great community pride and talks highly of an education, a small community and the opportunities she had,” Williams said. “She was a highly dynamic student and had great goals. Those are maybe thoughts that a lot of kids have when they step into that first college classroom on campus.”

One of those students was fifth grader Amanda Otto, a fifth-grader who would like to go into the medical field someday.

“I thought it was very cool to get to talk to her,” Otto said. “I think that is very cool to know you are going to the same school as someone that is very famous and that you will have the opportunity to show what you know.”

Among the 22 questions she fielded, Nyberg got a chance to hear one from her former English teacher, Marjorie Quammen, and took the opportunity to thank Quammen for being a teacher that “definitely expected the best” from her students.

Nyberg has achieved goals that few would expect from a person who grew up near Vining, a small Otter Tail County community of 200 people located six miles southwest of Henning.  Armed with a special dream, she saw the necessity of having a National Honor Society while attending high school so she organized one. After graduating from Henning in 1988, Nyberg went to the University of North Dakota where she earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering and graduated Summa Cum Laude. After receiving her Master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin, Nyberg went on to earn her doctorate. NASA selected Nyberg as a mission specialist in 2000 and eight years later she completed her first spaceflight, logging more than 13 days in space aboard the space shuttle Discovery.

Nyberg is currently the Flight Engineer of Expedition 36. Her second trip into space had an unusual starting point for a U.S. astronaut. Along with a Russian cosmonaut and a European Space Agency astronaut, Nyberg was launched into space aboard a Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan – half a world away from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida where her space shuttle flight was launched. Nyberg has been on the space station since May and is scheduled to return to Earth next month.

Among the crowd that packed the Henning gymnasium were Ken and Phyllis Nyberg, who caught a “special hello” from their famous daughter.

NASA helps the Nybergs speak to their daughter regularly and they even watch the space station cross the night sky above Vining thanks to information from the NASA website. Are they worried about her safety as she circles the Earth through the darkness of space?

Not really.

It’s only 250 miles,” Phyllis laughed.