Thirty students from Glenwood Middle School had the opportunity Friday to look inside the design and creation of spacecraft at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory.
The visit was part of Space Academy, a program created by the laboratory in partnership with Discovery Education. It teaches students, through facility tours and demonstrations, about NASA missions based at the Hopkins facility in Laurel, with the intent of getting them interested in math, science and engineering.
Friday's visit centered around NASA's Van Allen Probes mission, which uses two spacecraft orbiting the earth to examine "the sun's influence on the earth and near-earth space by studying the planet's radiation belts on various scales of space and time," according to the laboratory's website.
The Glenwood students, along with students from Anne Arundel County and Baltimore City, participated in a "Mission Briefing," in which they learned about the probes from a panel of four scientists who work on the mission, including Mission Operations Manager Ray Harvey. That was followed by a "Press Conference," during which students had the opportunity to ask the panel questions.
Sixth, seventh and eighth-graders interested in attending the visit had to study the mission's website and write a letter about why they wanted to participate, said Glenwood Middle Gifted and Talented teacher Kelly Storr. As a result, students had some background knowledge about the Van Alles Probes and the earth's radiation belts coming into the visit.
"How long did it take to test the Van Alles Probes?" asked Kristine Suritis, a Glenwood Middle student in seventh grade who said she became interested in space after a summer trip to Badlands National Park, in South Dakota.
"You could see so many constellations there, and the Milky Way," she said. "And they had telescopes there."
During a pizza break following the press conference, one of the four panelists talked to a couple of Glenwood students about why he decided to study aerospace engineering at the University of Maryland.
"I saw Independence Day," said Fazle Siddique, a spacecraft mission design and navigation engineer at APL, referring to the popular sci-fi movie.
Glenwood students met more scientists during a tour of the laboratory's Environmental Test Facility, in which flight hardware is tested under conditions that simulate flight environments. They put on pretend "clean suits," which scientists use while working on spacecraft, for the tour.
A vacuum engineer, after giving an overview of how he contributes to different missions, told Glenwood students that he never thought he would work in the aerospace field.
"I came out of school with my bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering, but this is where my career took me," said Andy Webb, lead engineer of the facility's Space Simulation Laboratory.
Neal Bachtell talked about his work designing thermal blankets for spacecraft, including the probe that flew by Pluto last summer.
"It takes time," said the thermal and mechanical designer. "We do everything freehand."
A parent chaperoning the trip asked Bachtell what he had to study in school to be able to do his job.
"Actually, I grew up on a farm," he said, explaining how a series of jobs led to his work in the space industry. "I have an A.A. degree. But this job requires a lot of math, geometry...stuff like that."
Students learned more about spacecraft design from engineer Madeline Kirk, including what types of instruments scientists need to put on board to measure different data points, and what parts of the spacecraft are needed to help it fly. To make the different concepts relatable, Kirk compared spacecraft to school buses.
"A school bus has a driver, right?" she asked. "What about an unmanned spacecraft? Does it have a driver?"
Margaret Vin, a seventh grader at Glenwood Middle, answered yes.
"The person who commands it from earth," she said.
After an activity in which student volunteers played the different components of a spacecraft, Kirk talked about why scientists use clean suits.
"What's the dirtiest thing in a clean room?" she asked, referring to the sealed rooms in which scientists work on spacecraft, which students had seen on the tour. The students pointed to themselves.
"Us!" they said.
The skin and hair particles that humans shed, as well as the fibers that come off their clothes, Kirk said, can contaminate spacecraft, so scientists use clean suits to contain such particles.
Kirk showed the Glenwood Middle students how one of their science teachers, Eric Jacques, looked in a real clean suit, complete with a hood and floppy boots. And sixth graders Aditya Shukla and Joey Walker competed in a clean suit contest, to see who could put one on the fastest.
As the students walked toward the bus at the end of the trip, they talked excitedly about wearing their "clean suits" into school.
"I'm going to wear mine into sixth period," Joey said.