Roving the World

By Michelle Galley — March 31, 2004 9 min read
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High schoolers from around the globe trek to the United States to help NASA scientists gather data on the Mars mission.

Four students huddle around a computer screen in a sparse, white office cubicle. Strings of numbers and red-hued images dance across the screen. The students’ eyes are transfixed on the symbols as they talk about photographs of dust.

And that’s no ordinary dust they are viewing.

It’s on Mars.

Nor are these typical students. The foursome has just returned from a meeting with some of the most accomplished scientists in the world.

Now, the Canadian teenager leads the girls from South Africa and England through a series of technical instructions. The boy from Taiwan occasionally interjects with helpful suggestions and other information.

They are all part of a unique program that brings high school students from around the world here to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Through the Red Rover Goes to Mars program, a girl who lives on a pig farm in Idaho works with a boy from Poland who says he loves to dance and play piano. A self-proclaimed fan of the pop group Back Street Boys from Sri Lanka teams with a teenager from Spain who loves sailing.

Despite the differences in cultures, hobbies, and the countries from which they hail, the young men and women all have one thing in common: a love of science and space exploration. “The whole idea of space exploration is exciting,” says Camillia Zedan, a 16-year-old participant from England.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s unmanned mission to Mars has inspired students throughout the United States and abroad to take part in a variety of science lessons and projects. But these particular students get to sit down the hall from the Mars Exploration Rover, or MER, navigational team and work on projects directly related to the mission.

Eight teams of two students each startedworking at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory when the first rover, Spirit, touched down on the surface of Mars in January. The project continued for eight weeks, through the landing of the second rover, called Opportunity. The rovers are robotic data-collection devices that are controlled from the NASA lab.

As members of the “science-operations working group” on the mission, the latest batch of students studies dust that gathers on the hulls of the rovers. In addition, the students analyze photographs the rovers take of a special calibration target on their hulls to ensure that the colors in the photos are accurate. The rovers take photos through 14 different filters, each of which gives the scientists, and students, information about what minerals are present in the dust.

“Minerals tell you about the geologic history” of a planet, says Emily Lakdawalla, the science and technology coordinator of the Planetary Society, a space advocacy group also based here in Pasadena. The group sponsors the Red Rover project along with the toy manufacturer Lego.

The students spend at least eight hours a day at the lab, where they have access to daily closed-door meetings in which the scientists discuss the mission’s progress and decide what should happen next. Every day, for instance, the scientists decide if the rovers should stay in their current locations and take more samples and photographs, or if one or the other should roll to an interesting rock formation nearby.

Each student team’s time at the laboratory overlaps by a few days so that the incoming students can learn from those who have already been here for a week.

On this stormy day last month, Nomathemba Kontyo, a bright-eyed 15-year-old girl from South Africa, and Zedan, an energetic teenager with long brown hair and dark eyes who’s nicknamed Millie, are learning the ropes.

“It’s a wonderful thing!” Kontyo, her face lighting up with a contagious grin, exclaims about the work she is doing.

Kristyn Rodzinyak, a 16-year-old with bright red hair who hails from Canada and is currently living in the United States, and soft-spoken Cheng-Tao Chung, a 14-year-old engineering enthusiast from Taiwan, are teaching them the ins and outs of their new responsibilities.

As the ebullient Rodzinyak excitedly explains the numerous tasks the teenagers will perform each day, Chung hangs back, interjecting only occasionally.

Still, when asked what his favorite part of the experience has been, Chung’s eyes light up, and the volume of his voice increases.

“I held an instrument on the rover in my hand,” he says, referring to a rock- abrasion tool, or RAT, similar to the one the rover Spirit uses to drill into Martian rock.

“And I talked to the head RAT guy!” says Chung, with the same enthusiasm another adolescent might use after meeting a pop superstar.

Mars days, or sols, are longer than Earth days, and the rovers “sleep” when the sun goes down on the Red Planet. As a result, the scientists arrange their schedules around the rovers’, which means that the hours they and the students work are in constant flux.

When a sol corresponds closely with an Earth day, the students are able to keep to a more traditional workday.

Kontyo and Zedan are lucky. They work from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. most of the time because Spirit’s days are similar to Earth’s.

Other students’ shifts fell in the middle of the night.

‘The whole point is for these kids to talk to kids and adults around the world about what it is like to be actively involved in a Mars mission.’

In total, 16 young people were chosen from around the world to work alongside NASA’s scientists on the current Mars Exploration Rover project out of more than 500 who applied.

The Planetary Society has sponsored similar competitions over the past two years, but this year’s marks the first time that students have been allowed to participate in an active mission.

To get to Pasadena, they had to fill out lengthy applications that included an essay asking students to imagine that they are in charge of the mission and use data collected from past missions to Mars to form a plan for the rovers.

A written recommendation from a teacher or another adult outside the student’s family and detailed information about why the student is interested in the mission were also required.

Being able to communicate effectively was a deciding factor in choosing the participants, says Lakdawalla of the Planetary Society.

“The point [of the contest] isn’t to benefit these few kids who will be involved in mission operations,” she says. “The whole point is for these kids to talk to kids and adults around the world about what it is like to be actively involved in a Mars mission.”

Because space exploration has no borders, Lakdawalla says, the competition was open to students worldwide. “It promotes peaceful international cooperation that is completely necessary for ambitious, exciting planetary operations,” she says. “The U.S. should be cooperating with other countries.”

Red Rover pays for transportation and housing for each teenager and one of his or her parents. All the students and their parents stay together in the same guesthouse nearby.

Off duty, they often connect with one another. One afternoon, an impromptu jam session broke out at the guesthouse as Rodzinyak played violin and Dàvid Turczi, a Hungarian student from an earlier team, played his guitar.

In addition to their “official” duties with the mission, the students are responsible for writing daily journal entries that are posted on the Planetary Society’s Web site.

Those journals provide a window into the day-to-day operations of the mission and reflect the students’ personalities and cultures.

Zedan’s exuberance, creativity, and love of everything related to the “Lord of the Rings” movies, particularly actor Orlando Bloom, shine through in her journal entries.

The entry dated Feb. 26 details the English teenager’s day at the laboratory. She also discusses how her pre-existing ideas that scientists were stuffy old men changed because she has the opportunity to work so closely with the men—and women—at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

As she walked through an office, she noticed a leather jacket hanging on a chair, she writes in her online journal. “Dude, I said to myself, someone here wears leather … nice!”

Kontyo’s journal entry from the same day includes fewer exclamation points and more detailed information about the goings-on at the lab.

“The rovers are doing great, and there are still a few observations to be done using the Mossbauer spectrometer,” she writes. The spectrometer is a device on the rover that is designed to detect the presence of an iron-bearing mineral in rock samples. “Everything is still going smoothly.”

The seriousness with which Kontyo approaches her journal entries may reflect less her personality, and more the sense of responsibility she says she brought with her to the project.

A few days before she and her mother embarked on the 24-hour trip that would take them from Cape Town, South Africa, to Pasadena, Kontyo received a special honor.

Thabo Mbeki, the president of her country; Kadar Asmal, South Africa’s education minister; and Cameron Hume, the U.S. ambassador to South Africa, visited Kontyo at her school to congratulate her on the trip and tell her how proud they were that she had been chosen to take part in the program.

“They encouraged me a lot,” she says.

Merely to apply to the program, Kontyo had to take three taxis from her rural township near Cape Town to a “science center” in the city where she could use a computer to fill out the online application form.

Eventually, she says, the workers there got to know her and did not charge her to use the computers when she was working on her application.

And when she was accepted, “everyone was congratulating me,” she says.

Kontyo’s accomplishment is significant: She is the first black South African student, and woman, to work with NASA.

“I feel I am one of the people who can stand for my country,” she says. “I should represent the women of South Africa.”

Upon her return to Cape Town, she is expected to report back to the president on the work she did, and make a presentation in each of the more than dozen schools in her township. “I am going to show students in Africa that as long as you put yourself to a thing, you can do it,” she says.

Though the work the students conduct in Pasadena is serious business, the foursome do have the opportunity to let down their hair.

On their first full day in the United States, Zedan and Kontyo get a taste of stardom, Hollywood-style.

Paramount Studios, in Los Angeles, holds a party to announce the DVD release of the first season of its sci-fi television show “Star Trek: Voyager,” and all four young people are part of the night’s festivities.

Though the students work hard while at the lab, they also get the opportunity to let down their hair and socialize off duty.

Under models of Leonardo da Vinci’s flying machine and the Wright brothers’ glider in the main hall of the California Science Center, the four students nibble on hors d’oeuvres and sip brightly colored drinks as reporters and publicity hounds gather to hear the night’s presentation.

Robert Picardo, who plays the character of the doctor on the space series, sits on the board of advisers of the Planetary Society and was instrumental in persuading the executives at Paramount to let him introduce the students and talk about their project.

By including them in the affair, Picardo says, he is able “to do something important with what is otherwise a commercial event.”

Even though the teenagers experience paparazzi firsthand and seem at times a little overwhelmed by the flashes from the cameras capturing their images, the most exciting part of the evening has more to do with one guest who is not an actor.

After the requisite introductions of four cast members from the television show, astronaut Janice Voss takes the stage to accept a plaque from the producers of “Star Trek” that honors NASA’s work in space exploration.

“Science fiction first got me interested in space travel,” Voss says in her short acceptance speech.

Though not all the students are huge fans of the TV show, they hang on the real-life astronaut’s every word. Kontyo takes notes.

Coverage of cultural understanding and international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies.

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