NASA discusses next manned spacecraft with visiting high school students

High school students and recent graduates participate in a panel discussion on NASA's Orion spacecraft. The panel featured NASA representatives (from left to right) Rex Walheim, Sharon Cobb, and Mark Geyer.

High school students and recent graduates participate in a panel discussion on NASA’s Orion spacecraft. The panel featured NASA representatives (from left to right) Rex Walheim, Sharon Cobb, and Mark Geyer.

Approximately 100 high school students and recent graduates from across the country – studying at MIT this summer as part of Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES), Women’s Technology Program (WTP), and Interphase Edge – gathered for a panel discussion on NASA’s Orion spacecraft on Tuesday, July 16. NASA Orion Program Manager Mark Geyer gave a presentation, which was followed by a question-and-answer session with Geyer; Rex Walheim, NASA’s Orion program astronaut representative; and Sharon Cobb, NASA Space Launch System assistant program manager.

Geyer led students through the three central components of the Orion project: the Ground Systems Development and Operations Program at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the Space Launch System that will lift Orion to its destinations, and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) itself.

The Orion MPCV, which has been in development since 2005, will be the country’s next manned spacecraft. The spacecraft is intended to carry astronauts to the Moon, to near-earth asteroids, and to Mars. The first uncrewed test flight, Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) is scheduled to occur in 2014. Orion will fly 3,600 miles into space before returning to Earth. The first crewed flight is projected to occur in 2021.

A large portion of Geyer’s presentation featured the many tests that the Orion team has administered. Students viewed videos and pictures of abort flight, heat shield, parachute drop, wind tunnel, and uprighting bag tests. The experiments prompted numerous questions, ranging from whether it was smarter to land on solid ground or water to whether the crew module is designed to be reusable. (Geyer noted that landing on water is safer but presents more complications for getting the crew out, and generally interior items such as seats and computers will be reused, but the outside structure will not.)

The question-and-answer session reflected the audience’s curiosity about space exploration more broadly. Colin Webb, a MITES student from Atlanta, Georgia, asked how the relationship between NASA and private companies interested in commercial space would develop. Walheim commended private companies’ entrepreneuralism, but emphasized the government’s unique role, using the analogy of 19th century explorers Lewis and Clark. The perilous expedition across the American West, said Walheim, was supported by the federal government without clear expectation of commercial gain. The government’s attitude, then and now has been, Walheim said: “We don’t even know what we’re going to find, but our country’s going to be better for it.”

The conversation touched upon the very human aspects of space exploration, reminding the audience of the fascination outer space instills in teenagers and experienced technicians alike. Noting the heavy investment involved in training astronauts, Rene Irving, a MITES student from Puerto Rico, asked why NASA sends humans rather than robots to space. After noting factors such as speed and actions only humans are capable of, Walheim added a third factor: “the tug of inspiration.” “People want to know – what is it like to be somewhere? What does it feel like to be standing in Mars?” Walheim said.

Perhaps pulled by that tug, the conversation turned to the experiences of being an astronaut. Asked whether he had always wanted to be an astronaut, Walheim recounted his journey from student to space traveler.

“I had a good fifteen-year plan from college on how I was going to be an astronaut,” said Walheim. The plan, which was set to begin with a pilot career, went smoothly for two months. A medical examination (later proven incorrect) discovered a heart murmur, disqualifying Walheim from working as a pilot. His first application to NASA was rejected. However, at each twist, Walheim persevered, believing that “if a goal’s worth having, it’s worth trying for.” He was selected by NASA in 1996, and has since participated in three space flights. “Persistence is more important than the path you take,” Walheim said.

As the discussion closed, the panelists shared their enthusiastic outlook on the future of space exploration and the important role that students concentrating in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines will play in it. “When I started at NASA, we didn’t have the internet,” Cobb said. “I truly believe that in your generation, we’ll see humans on Mars.”

— Lena Bae


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