Last month’s spacewalk incident involving Maine astronaut Chris Cassidy — in which he helped save the life of a fellow astronaut whose helmet sprung a leak outside the International Space Station — served as a reminder that while we may be far from Mission Control in Houston, our state has much to contribute toward the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s vision: “To reach for new heights and reveal the unknown so that what we do and learn will benefit all humankind.”
In fact, the next Chris Cassidy could be a member of the Maine Space Grant Consortium’s 2013 MERITS class, a group of 11 rising seniors who completed seven-week research internships earlier this month, all somehow related to aerospace exploration by way of science, technology, engineering, or math. Each of the MERITS scholars was matched with a research institution, where they pursued STEM interests such as molecular genetics and information technology.
The MERITS program is just one facet of the Augusta-based Maine Space Grant Consortium’s mission to educate and inspire the next generation of astronauts and engineers; it’s no wonder, then, that the non-profit gets most of its funding from NASA itself. “It’s in NASA’s best interest to make sure that the workforce pipeline is filled,” says Terry Shehata, executive director of the consortium, which is part of a national network of like-minded organizations.
A similar logic motivated Lockheed Martin, the international corporation with facilities in Bath, to launch Space Day, which for the last 10 years has happened on the first Friday of May every year. (In Maine, Space Day is stretched into Space Week, due to the level of interest and content.)
“One of the things that Lockheed realizes is that they need to inspire the future workforce,” says Sharon Eggleston, a retired senior project engineer at Lockheed who for 23 years worked on the AEGIS Combat System (a naval weapons system). Since 2001, she has served as Northeast Regional Coordinator for Space Day, which this year included a school-wide video teleconference via NASA’s Digital Learning Network that gave Sanford students insight into the rover Curiosity and its travels on Mars.
Eggleston is currently most excited about NASA’s Exploration Design Challenge, another Lockheed Martin partnership that invites Maine students from kindergarten through 12th grade to become engaged with the next great NASA challenge: deep space exploration, a/k/a traveling beyond low-Earth orbit. Using learning materials provided by NASA, students will be encouraged to design and build prototypes of radiation shields, meant to protect both humans and hardware from the harmful effects of high-energy cosmic rays. The top five designs from high-schoolers “will be tested by Lockheed Martin in a virtual radiation simulator,” Eggleston explains; the winning team will have the chance to travel to Florida and watch the launch of an unmanned flight to more than 3600 miles above the planet — 15 times higher than the International Space Station. That trip is scheduled for September 2014; a flight with humans is supposed to take off in 2017. Perhaps there’ll be a Mainer aboard.