Messick ’18 and Hutchison ’19 participate in NASA space scholar summer programs

Residential programs at Langley and Wallops Island made possible by Virginia Space Grant Consortium 
Upperclassmen Tyler Hutchison ’19 and Aidan Messick ’18 share a passion for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Over the summer, each boy followed his passion to special programs at NASA facilities where they learned first-hand from professionals about the latest cutting-edge technologies and missions.
 
Tyler, a junior, joined students from across the state at the Virginia Space Coast Scholars Program at Wallops Island on the Eastern Shore. Aidan, a senior, participated in the Virginia Aerospace Science and Technology Scholars (VASTS) program at the NASA facility at Langley in Hampton.   Both programs are made possible by the Virginia Space Grant Consortium, a coalition of five Virginia colleges and universities, NASA, state educational agencies, and other institutions representing aerospace education and research.
 
Each program features two key elements—a dynamic online STEM learning experience and a residential summer program. NASA only invites a select few who perform well on the online component to participate in the residential experience.
 
Tyler reported for the six day Space Coast Scholars program at Wallops Island at the beginning of July. Each of the 40 participants was deployed to one of four teams, where each team was responsible for designing an experiment to take on a theoretical mission. Tyler’s team chose to come up with a concept for a balloon that could fly for one month at 50 kilometers of altitude on Mars. “We wanted to figure out what kinds of balloon materials would be best to support that mission,” Tyler explains.  Short of sending a balloon to the Red Planet, the team came up with a plan to launch their balloon into the upper stratosphere over Antarctica, where the atmospheric conditions are similar to those on Mars.  
 
Tyler and his teammates got help from subject matter experts as they came up with ideas for their experimental balloon, as Wallops Island is NASA’s hub for balloon missions. “The engineers at Wallops typically work with balloons as large as football stadiums,” says Tyler.
 
Around the same time Tyler and his team were designing their experiment, Aidan and his VASTS teammates were planning their own mission to Mars at NASA Langley Research Center. Aidan, who completed the Wallops Island program last summer, was one of the top students selected for the VASTS residential program this year.
 
 “The focus of {the VASTS residential program} was to design a mission to Mars,” Aidan explains.  Program leaders split the participants up into four mission teams—human factors, mission integration, strategic communications, and mission transit. “Each team was tasked with a specific part of the mission…I was in the human factors group, and our job was basically to make sure that the crew gets back alive,” Aidan explains.  Practically, this meant that he and his teammates had to address things like the crew’s mental health, boredom, and homesickness. They also had to design the Mars habitat to protect the mission members from radiation and dangerous chemicals in the Martian regolith (the layer of unconsolidated rocky material covering bedrock).  They also designed extra-vehicular activity suits to allow the crew to explore the planet by foot.
 
Langley’s 100th anniversary celebration happened to land right in the middle of the program. Aidan and VASTS participants enjoyed a special visit from Buzz Aldrin, the second human to set foot on the moon. “{Aldrin} was a unique kind of a guy,” Aidan explains. “He talked to us about how sometimes not being first can be a benefit, and that coming in second isn’t necessarily always a bad thing.”  
 
For both Tyler and Aidan, getting to know their teammates was one of the most important parts of the experience. “I was really surprised by how close I became with my team members….they have become some of my closest friends,” says Tyler. “I keep up to date with my teammates from the academy,” Aidan explains. “I only knew them for a week but it felt more like a family.”

This fall, Tyler will take an online astronomy class through Global Online Academy. He also plans to sign up for the online component of the VASTS program, with hopes of attending the residential experience next summer.
 
In May the school awarded Aidan the Bausch & Lomb Science Award in recognition of his passion for and excellence in the sciences. He will graduate in May, and plans to continue pursuing his passion for STEM at the college level and beyond. “STEM is definitely where I’m headed,” Aidan explains.
 
More information about the Virginia Space Scholars and VASTS programs are available on the Virginia Space Grant Consortium website. Current St. Christopher's students interested in applying to either program should contact Associate Director of College Counseling Scott Mayer, mayers@stcva.org

View photos from Tyler's experience

View photos from Aidan's experience
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