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A Broader Vision of Discovery
08.17.05
 
David Wright is a college-bound athlete who plans to study computer science at the University of Chicago and pursue a gymnastics career. He would also like to be a pilot.

There's just one remarkable obstacle: he's blind. David lost his sight to glaucoma about four years ago. Even so, he was vice president of his public high school senior class and recently missed qualifying for a state-level gymnastics championship by one-tenth of a point.

That's right, one-tenth of a point.

The photo shows a dark-haired, dark-eyed young man in a red polo shirt working on a computer keyboard in the science operations room at JPL. Image to right: David Wright
David Wright works on a computer program that produces images of Mars. Image credit: NASA/JPL.
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And you thought you had challenges.

"Competing against sighted people when you're blind has its own satisfaction," he said.

"I didn't want people to look at me as the blind guy, but to say, 'He's cool, he's talented, he's got gifts. He's got potential.' And at the end of my high school career, people knew me for who I was."

Grace Under Pressure

To meet David and his two colleagues, Grace King and Thien Vu, who spent five weeks this summer as interns at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is to be reminded that persistence and hard work can overcome almost any challenge.

Consider, for example, that Grace, who was born blind, was president of her high school student council, a semifinalist in public high school forensics, and a competitor in track and wrestling.

The photo shows a sandy-haired young woman, her long, shiny hair pulled back behind her neck, wearing blue jeans, several gold chains around her neck, bracelets and rings, and a tan T-shirt bearing the words 'American Cancer Society,' tapping commands on a laptop-size device. Image to left: Grace King
Grace King checks messages on a Braille PDA. Photo credit: NASA/JPL.
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She plays goalball, a game initially designed for World War II veterans. In goalball, two teams of three blind or blind-folded players try to score goals with a basketball-size ball with bells inside it. They track the ball by the sound it makes. A strong player can roll the ball at 30 miles per hour.

"And you can take it with your face, which I've done," said Grace, with just a touch of satisfaction. "And it was really painful. But I stopped the ball. I was a center and I could defend very well."

At JPL, Grace compiled a report about a multi-sensory kit for enabling blind students to learn about NASA's two Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. Her major is assistive technologies at Northcentral Technical College in Wausau, Wisconsin, a field that uses technology to make things accessible to people with special needs.

Helping NASA Provide Access to All

All three interns worked at JPL as part of the EXCEL program, jointly sponsored by NASA and the National Federation for the Blind. EXCEL stands for "Excellence through Challenging Exploration and Leadership," and seeks to provide blind youth with early employment experience in NASA careers. The interns were selected in a nation-wide search. Three others worked at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center outside Washington, D.C.

JPL's EXCEL interns attended science and engineering meetings to plan the rovers' activities. They shadowed planners throughout the process of building and sending commands to Mars. They also produced technical reports about ways to engage blind people in space exploration. Thien wrote a proposal for "Mars Exploration Rover Exhibits for the Blind." David worked on the "Mars Student Imaging Program."

This photo shows, from left, Connie Gennaro, standing, with shoulder-length, wavy brown hair, dark eyes, fair skin, wearing a red polo shirt bearing a NASA logo below her left shoulder; Ashitey Trebi-Ollennu, standing, with short, dark hair, dark eyes, a trace of a moustache, and dark brown skin, wearing a blue dress shirt; David Wright, seated in front of the rover, with short-cropped, thick, dark hair, dark eyes, and tan skin, wearing a blue polo shirt with a 'Guiding Eyes for the Blind' logo below his left shoulder; Grace King, seated in front of the rover, with straight blond hair pulled back behind her neck, her eyelids almost but not quite closed, and fair skin, wearing a black polo shirt, her hands clasped in front of her; Thien Wu, seated in front of the rover, with short, dark hair, dark brown Ray-Ban-style sunglasses, and tan skin, wearing a black polo shirt over a white T-shirt, his hands clasped over one of his knees; and John Callas, standing, with short, dark hair parted on his right side, dark eyes, and fair skin, wearing a white polo shirt. All are smiling. The rover's tall mast, bearing a breadbox-size horizontal camera assembly at the top, is just behind the three students. Image to right: Students and Mentors
Posing with a full-scale model of the Mars rovers are, from left, Connie Gennaro, Ashitey Trebi-Ollennu, David Wright, Grace King, Thien Wu, and John Callas. Photo credit: NASA/JPL.
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The students carry Braille PDAs. They listen to talking software instead of reading words on a screen. To peruse web photos, they listen to descriptions of each image that are now imbedded in web code on Mars sites. Over the past year, in fact, JPL web sites have undergone a lot of "behind the scenes" adaptations to allow assistive technologies to work better, as well as to ensure JPL is in compliance with federal guidelines for accessibility (Section 508c of the Federal Rehabilitation Act).

Accessibility at JPL didn't stop at the computer screen for these students. John Callas, deputy project manager and science manager of the Mars Exploration Rovers, escorted the interns on tours of JPL along with Mars Public Engagement representative Connie Gennaro. Rover drivers Ashitey Trebi-Ollennu and John Wright (no relation to David) showed them how engineers plan the rovers' paths and manipulate their robotic arms.

Callas gave the interns tactile images of the rovers that let their fingers do the walking. The images consist of tiny, raised dots showing the spacecraft deck, antennas, wheels, and other parts.

The students also have tactile images of rover tracks in the martian sand and tactile maps of JPL for navigating their own way around lab.

Deeper Insight Through Hands-On Work

Thien, who has deteriorating eyesight from a condition known as retinitis pigmentosa, plans to study aeronautical engineering when he transfers to the University of California at Davis this fall. He would have liked his JPL internship to last longer.

"In the beginning I had thought that they were going to place me in the corners somewhere and give me simple, non-important things to do," he wrote. "Instead, I was involved in as much of things as I wanted to be involved in. In other words, it was a blank canvas. All that is required of me is to merely ask and let others know of my interests for what I wanted to do. If they could help out, they simply did, and if they didn't, they would point in the most likely direction to go."

A young man with short, lightly feathered brown hair and dark eyes, wearing a short-sleeved, tan, pin-striped dress shirt, and seated in a blue, high-backed office chair in front of a tan tabletop, listens to a recording through a pair of black headphones while gazing at a computer screen, his hands working the keys on a black keyboard. Image to left: Thien Vu
Thien Vu conducts an oral review of a report on a computer workstation. Photo credit: NASA/JPL.
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Getting out into the real world has given him a different perspective from that of many of his college peers, he said, adding that he still has a lot to learn.

Don't we all ...

Oh, and remember that dream about becoming a pilot? David Wright has already looked into it. It's been done in Ireland with the help of computer software. Whether in the sky or helping explore beyond Earth, the EXCEL students prove that, with a little technology and a dream, anything is possible. That's exactly the NASA way.

More at Mars Rovers or Mars Exploration Program .