Space is for everyone. That’s the message a Logan Square couple pushed as they connected with outer space from their apartment closet.
“A lot of astronauts and NASA employees are sharing their stories of how they began and how it’s not just the top people in their class that get to work for NASA,” said Meredith Stepien, podcast co-host, actress and Adler Planetarium content developer. “Space is for everyone. Nobody owns space.”
Stepien and her husband, Brian Holden, co-hosts of “REACH: A Space Podcast for Kids,” livestreamed Sept. 1 with NASA astronauts Megan MacArthur and Mark Vande Hei aboard the International Space Station. The astronauts are on Expedition 65, and one of their current experiments concerns regolith, the surface of planetary bodies — terrestrial soil, essentially.
The experiment takes simulated regolith and prints building materials in the hopes that structures built in space will be just as strong with less than Earth’s gravitational pull. If the experiment is successful, astronauts will be able to build habitats on the moon one day, said MacArthur, an astronaut since 2000 and an oceanographer.
Along with the in-depth description of current experiments and space exploration came the explanation of what life is like in zero gravity, away from friends, family and fresh food — a response to questions the podcast hosts solicited from their audience before the livestream.
“The nice thing about being on a spacewalk is that in every direction you look, you can see incredible distances,” said Vande Hei, an astronaut since 2009 and a retired Army officer. “So, there’s these beautiful views — kind of hard to get your head wrapped around the scales that you’re seeing. At the same time, you’ve got to pay very close attention to your job and make sure you stay safe.”
MacArthur has marveled at the photographs her and fellow astronauts have taken while aboard the station, some of the places they’ve lived and others of phenomena on Earth like large wildfires and hurricanes — which they’ve seen a lot of lately.
“Those photographs have also helped in emergency response planning, as well as even identifying leaks from oil pipelines, a very valuable resource that was made from [people] living here on the space station for about five years,” MacArthur said.
Much of the podcast hosts’ mission was to bring attention to the responsibilities people on Earth have to protect the planet but also create more equitable futures for later generations. They found that middle schoolers, those of Gen Z or older Gen Alpha, are interested in the ethics of space travel.
“They are a generation that is particularly more aware of what’s going on in the world, as far as government and social issues, than I may have been when growing up,” said Nate DuFort, co-creator of the podcast and founder of Soundsington Media, which produces it. “Because of the big news items relating to space right now in the modern day space race with millionaires going into orbit, there may be a perception that space belongs to the wealthy. That is absolutely not true.”
The podcast’s first episode went live in June 2020. DuFort noticed a gap in space exploration learning in his 12-year-old daughter and Stepien, through her work at the planetarium, noticed people of all ages really didn’t know much about what lies beyond Earth. That’s why the podcast was created, to meet children and their parents at home in an accessible, fast-paced learning environment.
Now, the show has two seasons and over 30 episodes, encouraging kids to find their own sources of information and make smart choices based on real science.
“Thinking about just what is out there and what we are and how we’re all just connected by this sky and by space, it’s just grounding,” Stepien said. “And it’s a really nice place to go, especially if you’re feeling stressed or worried about our Earthling problems.”
The episode of REACH featuring NASA astronauts MacArthur and Vande Hei will be released Sept. 14 on Apple podcasts and other streaming platforms.