Visiting with a real life astronaut is a big wow for kids, but if that astronaut is from a small town in Kansas, like many of the campers are, it is a super wow.
More than 40 campers at the Cosmosphere International Science Education Center and Space Museum in Hutchinson visited remotely with astronaut Nick Hague.
Along with Hague, the campers and counselors heard from the head of NASA, a rocket scientist – who is also a Kansas native, a NASA trainer and a U.S. state senator. Each student learned about zero gravity, the importance of training and giving it your all – but most of all, they learned to follow their dreams.
"Even though you might come from a small town in Kansas of less than one thousand people, your dreams can come true," Hague said. "Pursue your passion."
U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., who was born in Great Bend, made this visit possible. He gathered the speakers together and was willing to spearhead a virtual trip to the Cosmosphere.
"Fifty years ago we put a man on the moon," Moran said. "I want to make sure that space exploration and science is honored and esteemed. Some of the best STEM education (in the nation) happens in the Cosmosphere."
Although NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine grew up in Texas, every summer he and his family would travel to Hutchinson to visit the Cosmosphere on their way to South Dakota. Bridenstine said these yearly trips made an impression on him. Along with being a former U.S. Naval Aviator, Bridenstine is in charge of NASA.
"The Cosmosphere has a really big impact on the lives of children," Bridenstine said.
Bridenstine, a graduate of Rice and Cornell University, told the group that NASA is nine days away from launching a robot to Mars.
"This is only the ninth time in human history," he said. Bridenstine explained how parts of Mars were once covered with water.
"We are looking for signs of life. At one time, Mars was habitable," he said. "Mars is covered with complex organic compounds."
NASA will use a helicopter for the first time to look for astrobiology on Mars. In addition to going to Mars, NASA is going back to the moon with the Artemis program. Artemis, the twin sister of Apollo in Greek mythology, will have a woman astronaut walk on the moon.
"We have a mandate from our President to have a woman go to the moon," Moran said. "And it is long past time to make that happen."
Moran is a member of the Senate committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation and the subcommittee on Aviation and Space. Like Bridenstine, he looks forward to space exploration.
"We’re going to learn how to live and work on the moon," Bridenstine said. "We’re trying to expand the boundaries of what we understand."
Bridenstine hopes to have a permanent presence on the surface of the moon. He said the international partnerships, along with working with U.S. businesses, has helped secure space travel. Although the moon is important, Bridenstine looks forward to exploring Mars.
"We want access to all parts of the moon anytime we want," he said. "We are going to the moon for a purpose, and that purpose is to land on Mars."
Each NASA speaker pointed out teamwork is vital to getting someone into space. One chip in the wheel could cause a calamity.
Teresa Sindelar, a space medical operations instructor, said although she grew up in Nebraska, when she was young, she attended Cosmosphere camps.
"My dream was to work for NASA," she said. After graduating college and teaching science in Buhler, Sindelar went to Texas to work for the government. She learned right away, NASA worked as a team.
"At NASA we say it’s not just one person, it’s a team," Sindelar said.
Hague echoed Sindelar when he said, "Through that teamwork is how we make that exploration possible."
Careers in space
For Charlie Garcia, of Hutchinson, the Cosomosphere led him to a career in space. After attending Cosmosphere camps throughout his youth, Garcia headed off to Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After graduation, he started designing rocket engines.
"It’s like building Legos without the instructions," Garcia said. "It’s so engaging."
Hague took a different path out of Hoxie, Kan. He was accepted into the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., and after graduating, he went on to obtain a master’s degree from MIT. Hague said that thinking of where to apply to college was instrumental toward his life path.
"I thought about the idea of service and getting to do something bigger than self," Hague said.
Moran wants these youngsters and their counselors, many of them either college students or teachers, to understand that there are many opportunities in the space program. NASA needs mechanics, engineers, pilots and teachers.
"The Cosmosphere is an asset in Kansas capturing them (youth) to pursue careers in space," Moran said. "We’re interested in creating businesses and expanding businesses in Kansas that work with NASA."