The navigator used a live video feed to plot a path for a robotic land rover, which was remotely operated by a driver a few feet away. Next to them was a safety technician who used a color-coded computer screen to watch out for obstacles and significant changes in terrain, a scientist who recorded images and studied them, and a communicator who transmitted all the data.
They were not NASA employees stationed inside mission control at the Johnson Space Center, at least not yet. They were students at Waltrip High School, who on Friday got to explore a faraway place without having to leave their campus on West 34th Street.
“It was pretty cool,” said sophomore Julyssa Godina, who played the part of the scientist. “This is exactly what I want to do when I get older.”
Training and inspiring the next generation of space explorers is the idea behind the Mission Control Academy, an immersive educational outreach program funded by NASA and administered by Texas A&M University and Mission Control Space Services, a Canadian company specializing in space exploration technology, robotics and STEM education. Waltrip and Woodroffe High School in Ottawa, Canada, were selected to participate in the two-week course that included videoconference lessons on planetary science and engineering.
The course culminated Friday, when students at both schools remotely operated a rover at a facility in Quebec where the terrain is similar to that on Mars. NASA, ahead of its 2020 Mars rover mission, commissioned A&M researchers and the Canadian space company to conduct a similar exercise in Iceland last summer to help fine-tune and improve the rover it will send into space.
As part of the grant NASA provided to A&M and Mission Control Spaces Services, they are teaching those skills to budding scientists. Ryan Ewing, an associate professor in A&M’s Geology and Geophysics program, said the space exploration industry is expanding through a convergence of public and private interests.
Mission Control Space Services’ Adam Deslauriers, who along with Ewing was on hand Friday to help the students complete their exercise, said exploring space and examining the possibility of colonizing Mars is potentially vital to the long-term survival of the human species. He said space exploration could be lucrative as well, because scientists are finding valuable materials such as platinum on asteroids.
“Space is going to the new frontier for business, so that’s when you’re going to need a lot of people who know how to do this kind of stuff,” he said.
Deslauriers and Ewing said Waltrip was selected because it is one of the few high schools with a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) program, which the school started in 2013. Teacher Ruby Blackmon said there are more than 100 students in the program, and 20 of them participated in the Mission Control Academy.
For Friday’s exercise, and because two of the 20 students were absent, they worked in teams of four or five. Each team operated the rover for 50 minutes, with Deslauriers saying they were taking it “really seriously” and “doing awesome.”
“It’s a huge honor,” Blackmon said. “We’re the only school in the nation that was selected. I don’t think it’s sunk in to the students yet how big of a deal it is.”
Sophomore Arleth Andrade, who was the driver for the team called “Mission Explorers,” likened it to playing a video game. She operated a joystick on what looked like a video-game controller.
Because one of the team members was absent, senior Penelope Medellin doubled as the navigator and safety technician. Thanks to constant communication and coordination between her, Andrade, Godina and Daniela Rodriguez, the transmitter, they completed the mission without any mishaps.
Medellin described the experience as enjoyable as well as educational.
“When we start to explore the universe or our galaxy more,” she said, “we’re going to need this type of technology and navigation skills.”