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Edwards Middle School Students Like Four-footed Martian Robots

NASA Dryden Flight Research Center Director Kevin Petersen talks to Edwards Middle School students on April 9.
NASA photo by Tom Tschida.

By Frederick A. Johnsen
NASA Dryden Flight Research Center

It was the video of robots looking like geckos crawling on Mars that did it.

That's the catalyst that brought a gymnasium full of middle school students to life during a visit by NASA Dryden Flight Research Center director Kevin Petersen, astronaut Pam Melroy, and local graduate Shelby Hagenauer, now a legislative assistant to Representative William M. Thomas from California's 22nd Congressional District.

The students, some 350-strong, attend Edwards Middle School on Edwards Air Force Base, where NASA Dryden is located. Dryden supports the school as a NASA Explorer School, one of a growing number of schools around the country who are partnering with NASA to achieve exciting learning projects.

Petersen, Melroy and Hagenauer each had messages of encouragement for the students. The Edwards community is a savvy audience; many of the students' parents fly aboard, or support, experimental aircraft tested by the Air Force at this Mojave Desert location. When Petersen spoke about cutting-edge experiments flying overhead every day, it was the straight scoop from NASA Dryden's top insider, delivered to an audience whom, he said, may have the opportunity to contribute to the planned exploration of Mars.

"Let's go do something really hard," Petersen encouraged his audience. "We'll learn some things we can all use."

NASA astronaut Pamela Melroy answers student's questions at Edwards Middle School
NASA astronaut Pamela Melroy answers students' questions at Edwards Middle School on April 9.
NASA photo by Tom Tschida.

Pam Melroy captivated the students with descriptions of space travel taken from her two space shuttle missions. When asked what it was like to sleep in outer space, Melroy smiled and replied, "Sleep? It's worse than the night before Christmas times a thousand!" She wanted to stay awake to experience everything, knowing she had but a short stay on orbit. But sleep in space is necessary, and she said astronauts sometimes strap themselves to a wall to get the feeling of something at their backs, like the feeling of a mattress on Earth. In zero gravity conditions, up and down don't matter, and some astronauts "hang upside down like bats" to sleep, she told the Edwards Middle School crowd.

Melroy reminded her audience, "Someone between the age of about five and 15 right now will be the one to step on Mars." Prophetic words that Melroy and her co-hosts would be delighted to see come true for someone from Edwards.

Shelby Hagenauer, a 1994 graduate of Desert High School next door, elaborated on Petersen and Melroy's comments about the value to future space explorers of studying math and science now. "We also need people to study history and political science," she told the students, since there are many ways to support the dream of exploration.

The personal contact with Petersen, Melroy and Hagenauer continued to animate the students who clustered around to ask questions after the program's conclusion. Teacher Kim Cantrell was pleased with what the Explorer School program has done so far; one student has said doors have opened up in her mind since the exposure to NASA Explorer School activities.