SANTA CLARA -- Ben Westlund is only in the third grade, but Saturday he seemed to fully grasp just how amazing it was to be talking to an astronaut in space.

Decked out in a full astronaut costume, complete with space gloves and a jetpack backpack, the 8-year-old Santa Cruz boy said konnichiwa -- "hello" -- to the Japanese astronaut aboard the International Space Station and talked to him briefly about outer space.

"That was like a rare time in life," Ben said after talking to English-speaking astronaut Akihiko Hoshide. "It was like he was standing right in front of me. Right there!"

Ben was one of 14 local school kids that used a ham radio to ask Hoshide questions about space in an unusual opportunity for boys and girls to learn real-life science outside the classroom.

The event was made possible after a year of planning by local amateur radio enthusiasts and NASA, which combined to set up an elaborate satellite radio system used to connect the Santa Clara Marriott with outer space.

As the space station hovered over Italy for 10 minutes, the astronauts connected to the kids at the hotel via a "telebridge" conference call involving Italian engineers and a moderator in Australia. Some phone signal problems in the minutes leading up to the event kept organizers nervous, but the call to space went off without a hitch.

The kids, mostly from Brook Knoll Elementary School in the Scotts Valley Unified School District, took turns asking the astronaut questions like:

  • "Can you see other planets up there?" Hoshide answered that he saw Mars just the other day.

  • "How do you sleep -- do you have beds?" Yes, they're the size of a phone booth.

  • And, most importantly, "Can you eat ice cream in space?" Yes, they just got in a new batch.

    Proud parents and the local ham radio enthusiasts in town for a large amateur radio convention at the hotel beamed with pride and couldn't seem to stop commenting on how cute the whole thing was.

    Using proper ham radio etiquette, the kids all had to say "over" before ending their questions, which NASA had preapproved so Hoshide had plenty of time to think of some clever answers.

    U.S. astronaut Lee Morin, in his blue NASA outfit, also was on hand to talk and take pictures with the kids.

    "It was a level of excitement I haven't seen," said Joe Spier, the bowtie-wearing emcee of the event and an education director for the amateur radio group that helped organize it, called AMSAT.

    For the kids, Spier said, "it's kind of like, now (the astronauts) actually exist. You can do this if you study and stay in school."

    If you're wondering, the hardest part about living in space, according to Hoshide's answer to one inquisitive little girl, is taking a bath -- since the water would go everywhere in the weightless environment. He said they have to get clean by wetting towels with soapy water.

    Hoshide -- from Japan's version of NASA, called JAXA -- reassured any kids thinking about becoming astronauts when they grow up:

    "It's even cooler than I expected."

    NASA, AMSAT and the American Radio Relay League launched the Amateur Radio on the International Space Station program in 2000 and have since connected about 760 groups of kids with astronauts aboard the space station, AMSAT president Barry Baines said.

    NASA usually sends "technical mentors" that show local ham radio enthusiasts how to set up the equipment. In the case of the Santa Clara event, it took organizers about six hours Friday to prepare.

    Kids like Ben submitted 40 questions and the best were picked as organizers scrambled in the past two weeks to set up the event after learning of their upcoming brief window of communication with the space station.

    Ben, who played astronaut Buzz Aldrin in a recent school role-playing activity, has read a couple of books about space. And his interest won't end with Saturday's event.

    He said: "I want to be an astronaut for Halloween."

    Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705. Follow him at twitter.com/rosenberg17.