Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=184810
Story Retrieval Date: 5/21/2013 8:07:34 AM CST
James Green, director of NASA's planetary division, and Stephen Mackwell, director of the Lunar and Planetary Institute, sign autographs for students at the Museum of Science and Industry.
NASA scientist urges Chicago kids to walk on Mars
The Decadal Survey looks at the future of space exploration.
James Green discovered his love for science in his teens. Now he’s the director of NASA’s planetary science division and hopes to one day pass the torch to students like the ones he met Wednesday at the Museum of Science and Industry.
Green and Stephen Mackwell, director of the Lunar and Planetary Institute, spoke about the present and future of NASA during a community event at the museum.
The event was one of 10 meetings across the country to discuss NASA’s Decadal Survey, a blueprint of mission plans for 2013 through 2022. This meeting, however, had a twist. It was geared toward the museum’s primary audience: students.
Chris Wilson, a museum employee, brought his 11-year-old son, Michael, to the event because he is interested in planetary science.
“I thought it was really amazing,” Michael said. “How impossible some of that stuff seems.” He’s not sure yet what he wants to be when he grows up, but he said it would most likely be something in science.
The Decadal Survey listed a mission to Mars to collect samples as a priority, but due to budget cuts a project of that magnitude isn’t currently possible, according to Mackwell. “The survey is about picking the places we need to go and figuring out whether we can get there with the money we have,” he said.
However, the missions to Mars aren’t completely derailed. Curiosity, the Mars science laboratory, is a one-ton, nuclear powered rover that will launch Nov. 25, according to Green.
Other launches scheduled for this year include: Dawn, which launches in July and will orbit the asteroid Vesta; Juno, which launches in August and will orbit Jupiter; and Grail, which launches in September and will orbit the Moon.
“There may be walking in this museum right now the kid who will be walking on Mars,” Green said. “We don’t know what it is that will inspire that next generation.”
Green found his inspiration while working at an observatory during high school. He took photos using a high power telescope, some of which were published in Sky and Telescope. He said that put him on the path to study space science at the University of Iowa.
In college, his instructors encouraged him to look beyond astronomy to geology. “From looking at Mars, to standing on Mars and discovering what’s there,” he said. “That leap grabbed me. That changed everything about what I wanted to do.”
He said he never would have been there if it hadn’t been for his experience with science in high school, and hopes the event ignites similar sparks. “That group of kids was excited about space, and I could have stood there all day talking to them.”
Classes from Evanston Township and Carl Schurz high schools attended. Every time a student asked a question, Green charged them with the task of pursuing those challenges in the future and gave them a space-themed pin.
Caterina Plummer, a chemistry teacher at Carl Schurz in Irving Park, brought students to broaden their horizons and spark their interest in science.
“A lot of our kids in [Chicago Public Schools] only see their own neighborhood, so they don’t know how to set higher goals than what they’ve just seen in front of them,” Plummer said. “I wanted them to be able see that there’s other opportunities out there, and to see actual people who are out there working in that field who are normal people just like them.
NASA approached the Museum of Science and Industry to host the town hall in an effort to get the community excited about the Decadal Survey. The museum decided to focus the event toward students, according to Kevin Frank, director of government relations at MSI.
He said they want kids to realize there is a wide variety of opportunities for them in science. “You don’t have to be an astronaut to be a part of the space program. There are other things,” he said.
According to Frank, 260,000 – 300,000 students visit the museum each year.
“Science is relevant. It surrounds you. It’s in your backyard if you choose to go look at it,” Wilson said. “The best thing we can do is inspire kids to really believe that it’s a worthy pursuit.