When ATK offered to sponsor me to attend the Space Shuttle Atlantis grand opening at Kennedy Space Center, I was excited. Who wouldn’t want to go to the grand opening of the exhibit that so proudly displays such a prominent part of United States space history? Plus it was a chance to visit the Kennedy Space Center, which I have not been to since the STS-134 Endeavour launch in 2011. I was also excited to have a chance to meet with ATK employees and learn more about the NASA SLS (Space Launch System) Rockets that they are working on. These are the rockets that will someday send me to Mars and many others who ae parer of my generation, The Mars Generation, so of course I was very excited!
But I was not prepared for the experience I was about to embark on. I didn’t realize that if ATK was at the Space Shuttle Atlantis Grand Opening, Lockheed Martin would be there as well, with showcasing the NASA Orion spacecraft. The Orion is the spacecraft that will take me to Mars and back in either 2031 or 2033 as one of the first astronauts to make that trip (I will likely have several partner astronauts). And, well, if Lockheed Martin was going to be there than of course Aerojet Rocketdyne, who makes the engines for NASA SLS rockets, would be there, and well, you get the point. The list goes on and on of companies who are doing the work today and everyday to someday get me to Mars.
But it doesn’t stop there. I also did not realize that along with all the private space companies that contract with NASA to build the spacecrafts and launch systems of the future there would also be many NASA scientists, engineers, education outreach specialists, and other professionals set up throughout the Kennedy Space Center with their exhibits, ready to explain their work.
Not only was every professional present excited about their work, they couldn’t wait to share it with me. I learned about the heat shields that are currently being produced will indeed get me to the surface of Mars. I learned how space mining is being developed as we speak – not only to bring precious resources back to Earth, but even more importantly to mine oxygen and fuel on Mars (or along the way) so that we don’t have to carry all our resources with us and back. This work alone will cut the price to go to Mars down by five times the amount (currently missions to Mars have been estimated to cost anywhere from 20 billion to 100 billion USD). Bringing the cost of a mission to Mars down will enviably help make the mission possible. This is exciting!
I also learned about many other important facets of space travel and research either already being used, or being developed for future use (such as the water filtration system on board the ISS). I talked with CASIS (Center for the Advancement of Science in Space) scientists about how experiments are chosen to fly aboard the ISS, and about the importance of a microgravity environment for experimentation. CASIS is an alternative way to fly experiments on the ISS. One of the CASIS scientists at the exhibit this weekend explained to me that NASA primarily flies experiments meant to increase our understanding of technology and space, while CASIS flies experiments meant to support ground research.
And all this was outside the main attraction the Space Shuttle Atlantis Exhibit. All of this happened to be because I was there on this special weekend to celebrate the past, but also look forward to the future. And in between these amazing scientists, engineers, educators, and companies I also had the opportunity to promote my #SoyuzAdventure and spread the word to even more people. Thanks to ATK and their belief in my future, I was at their table talking about the NASA SLS SLS rockets and also having an opportunity to meet people and talk about my work.
The truth is, a trip to Mars is still a few years away – most of the technology I saw will be tested on asteroid missions and perhaps even the moon before I go to Mars. The 20 years we have to wait for the first Mars mission seems like a long time and perhaps I give these professionals hope as they give me hope. Seeing a 16 year old who is determined to become a NASA astronaut and get to Mars and will work every day on my end of the bargain to be ready, ensures them that a new generation believes, and gives them a reason to do the work they do each day. My outreach inspires them to see that future generations will continue the quest for human space exploration. Together we can do it! As John F. Kennedy once said about the moon,“That challenge is one that we are willing to accept.” Viewing this exhibit has shown me that we, as a society, are ready to accept the challenge of Mars as well. And that we will succeed.
It was a mind-blowing weekend. After having viewed the majesty of the Shuttle program, I am certain that we can, and will, do bigger and better things in the future.