Vermont Students Design Mars Missions As Part Of NASA Program

Feb 9, 2015

Community college students across the nation are getting an opportunity to study Mars exploration through a special NASA program. That includes six Vermont students who are designing their own missions to Mars.

As a pre-med student at Community College of Vermont, Liz Taylor never thought of herself as someone who would be working on a Mars mission.

But she says she realized NASA isn't just for astronauts.

"There are doctors that work at NASA. Engineers. So it's really a broad field," said Taylor. "Much broader than I ever expected."

That's the message NASA is hoping to get across with their Community College Aerospace Scholars Program.

Alicia Baturoni Cortez is the program's director. She says the organization reached out to community college students for a reason. She says they'd make great future NASA employees.

"Many of them are holding down full or part time jobs. Raising a family. Many of them have life experience that they bring to their studies in addition to the courses they're taking," said Cortez.

In the online component, students learn about past, present and future Mars exploration. At the end of the course, students are responsible for designing their own missions to Mars.

Out of around 400 students participating, only 240 will be invited to travel to a NASA site.

"We try to put people in front of them who have come from similar backgrounds. Who have community college as part of their educational past, or who've had struggles or challenges that they've overcome to get where they are." Alicia Baturoni Cortez, NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars Program Director

If the two CCV students are chosen, they will head to the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi for a three day program in May.

Once qualifying students get there, Cortez says students will be divided into teams, and they'll be busy.

"Each of those teams become a company," explained Cortez. "So they form a fictitious company that is competing for a NASA contract to build the next Mars Rover."

In order to make the program more inclusive, students taking just nine credits within STEM fields were eligible.

That opened up the opportunity to Liz Taylor of Middletown Springs.

She said the engineering material was outside of her comfort zone, but she's found some overlap with her coursework. Because astronauts have poor circulation in space, Taylor says she's looking at how technology used there could help patients on the ground:

"That'll help us get people who are here on Earth with poor circulation who could benefit from having extra gravity chambers," said Taylor. "Just something different and unique to help them."

And Cortez, the program's director, says another focus of the program is to show students that nontraditional paths can still lead to high-level jobs.

"We try to put people in front of them who have come from similar backgrounds," said Cortez. "Who have community college as part of their educational past, or who've had struggles or challenges that they've overcome to get where they are."

"It touched on the little kid inside me going, 'Woo hoo! I want to go to NASA.'" - Liz Taylor, CCV student

For now, students don't earn any college credit through the program. But that didn't stop Taylor from taking it on. She says it was too exciting to pass up.

"Hey, I can do that? I can be part of NASA?' So that was one of the big selling points for me, said Taylor. "It touched on the little kid inside me going, 'Woo hoo! I want to go to NASA.'"

Clarification 3:30 p.m. Thursday, March 5, 2015 In a press release, CCV excluded the names of four students who have also been selected to participate in NASA’s Community College Aerospace Scholars program.

Kyle Kingsbury of Rutland, Natasha MacWalters of St. Albans, Aquene Sausville of White River Junction and another student will also visit the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi this May for a three day intensive program.