Outer space got a little bit closer this summer for a soon-to-be El Campo High School senior with dreams of being an aerospace engineer.
Meredith Rek spent a week at the Johnson Space Center as part of NASA’s High School Aerospace Scholars program, an opportunity earned after a four-month online training course.
The online effort started late last summer with Rek applying for participation in the online course available to Texas high school juniors only.
“Over 800 students applied and were approved, but only about 400 completed the online course. I was one of these fortunate students,” she said.
The online course included four one-month courses, all geared toward NASA’s Mars mission goal – Getting There, Discovering There, Living There and Working There – with each course broken down into four sections. Tasks included projects, essays and videos with tests coming at the end of each section.
“Once the quiz is finished and you made at least an 80 or higher, you can move on to the next assignment,” Rek said. “After each course, there is a final test that you have to pass in order to gain access to the next course.”
After passing the online course, Rek had to wait to see if she was approved for the on-site program.
“Those with the best grades are accepted into the on-site portion of the program. This year, approximately 200 students were accepted for the opportunity to study for a week with some of the most intellectual people in Texas,” Rek said.
Next, she said, came paperwork, “hoards,” to be allowed access to NASA, followed by an online team building class before arriving at NASA Johnson Space Center where Building 323 became home base.
“And finally, your week, while being surrounded by people with the same work ethic as you, begins,” she said.
Forty-four students attended the program the week she went, broken down into groups of 11.
Three participants shared a hotel room during training. Rek said she was the one in her room assigned the honor of the pullout couch.
“I found that the most challenging part of the entire week was probably getting a good night’s rest. Because we had an entire team, the projects in and of themselves were not difficult ... But waking up at 5:30 or 6 every morning and not arriving at the hotel until 9:30 or 10 every night really took a toll on me personally ... when you are pushing your mind to the limit, getting little sleep does not help when you are trying to focus on a very important task,” she said.
The students were divided into four groups while at NASA, each tackling a subject first introduced online. For Rek’s Team Charlie or “Charlie and the Rocket Factory,” as they dubbed themselves, the mission was “Living There.”
“We had to design and build a model of a Martian greenhouse and laboratory facility before Thursday. While trying to build this, however, we also had to complete every other assignment we were placed with while being there.”
With Mars as the target, the group had to consider not only living there, but also the six to eight months it would take to get there.
Tasks included building and launching mini rockets from an Estes Rocket Tek Pack, constructing a rover out of LEGOs and testing it and building a lander and parachute.
In between the tasks were lectures from assorted NASA personnel, a visit to the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, seeking and learning about the Habitable Air Lock, robotic arms, 3D printing and a visit to the public access areas of the Johnson Space Center.
“In the evening, we launched our rockets on an asphalt slab in the middle of a pasture,” Rek said, adding that it was the most fun part of the program for her. “Shooting rockets that flew about 100 meters in the air in a pasture with the sunset on the horizon was pretty awesome.”
In the middle of the week, they visited the Saturn V rocket and heard a speech given by its engineer Norman Chaffee, followed by a visit to the Longhorn Cattle Project and Greenhouse, another Mars mission section.
“Next, we went back to Building 323 to build our landers, and to finish the day, we were bussed to the University of Houston - Clear Lake to launch our landers from a seven-meter drop,” she said.
A trip to Mission Control came the next day along with a visit to the Lab Mock-Up Facility and tour of the Orion, the Valkyrie and others.
That afternoon came the rover test and the group’s presentation “which was extremely stressful, in front of employees who are actively working on NASA’s Mars project,” Rek said.
The projects, she said, were enlightening.
“At NASA, you have one job, and that’s it. You don’t pick up anything else; you have that one job and that one job only. And the jobs are so specific. My group’s mentor Hannah Bradley worked on the windows for the spaceships that went out to space. That’s it, just the windows,” Rek said. “Learning that there are such specific groups and teams for every little thing at NASA was mind-blowing for me.”
The program ended on a Friday, June 28 with a closing ceremony.
“I still stay in contact with this amazing group of 10, and I couldn’t be more grateful for them,” Rek said. “Just being there with all of these wonderful people and inspiring leaders was so overwhelming, I was just honored to be there. And honestly, I couldn’t have asked for anything more.”
With the goal of becoming an NASA aerospace engineer, Rek said everything she learned will be helpful in her future career.
Rek added that its a program she recommends for others.
“I promise you will not regret it. I am proud to call myself part of the official NASA HAS Alumni, and I am super excited and honored to be sharing my experiences with my community. I am so appreciative of NASA for this opportunity, and I look forward for possible future internships,” she said.
“I would 100 percent do it all over again if I could. Unfortunately, this program is only available to juniors in high school. That is why I am researching on NASA’s internship programs, so I can come back in the near future – hopefully,” she added.