Fifty years after Apollo 11, NASA inspires PBSC students
Fifty years after Apollo 11 landed on the moon, Palm Beach State College students are learning what it takes to explore outer space as participants in NASA’s undergraduate programs. Miguel Mattis and Matthew Merlo are part of a new generation of students inspired—like the Apollo generation before them—by NASA’s ambitious plans for future missions, which include sending the first woman astronaut to the moon by 2024, establishing a sustainable human presence there by 2028, and moving beyond to Mars.
Mattis enrolled at PBSC in 2017 to pursue his Associate in Arts degree in preparation for a bachelor’s degree in physics. Having a longtime fascination for stargazing and the planets, he jumped at the opportunity to become a NASA Community College Aerospace Scholar his freshman year. As a participant in the nationwide NCAS program, he learned about NASA’s missions and research and attended a four-day event at the Kennedy Space Center that gave him a behind-the-scenes experience interacting with NASA engineers and subject matter experts. Mattis made such a positive impression on the NCAS staff that he was invited back in 2018 as a paid student assistant to help mentor the new class of scholars.
This year, Mattis participated in another NASA undergraduate program called L’Space Virtual Academy. In the first 12-week session, 450 students from across the country worked in teams of 10 to develop a mission concept. Working virtually and given access to NASA tools, Mattis’ team devised a plan to find ice on Mars using a drone with a five-kilogram weight limit. Currently, Mattis is participating in the second session, in which 200 students are competing in teams to write and evaluate proposals for solving space exploration problems. NASA awards a $10,000 grant to the top team, and the winning proposal concept moves forward to prototyping and testing at NASA. The winner is yet to be chosen, but Mattis’ team hopes their proposed technology will become an integral part of future moon missions.
“The L’Space programs are the hardest things I’ve ever done in my scholastic career, hands down,” said Mattis, who also works as a mental health technician at JFK Medical Center.
As he finishes his A.A. degree this summer and prepares to start at Florida Atlantic University this fall, he acknowledged the inspiration and support of the NASA professionals he has met, who encouraged him to believe that a NASA career is within his reach. Several NASA employees started at community colleges, such as Omar Baez Jr., the senior launch director at the Kennedy Space Center, who has an associate degree from Miami Dade College. Mattis said, “You think NASA people are these great mythical scientific figures, but instead they are down-to-earth, nice people, who give great advice.”
He also thinks that leaders in the STEM fields are starting to recognize the importance of people who, like himself, don’t always follow a linear path in life.
“NASA is looking for fresh ideas from unorthodox places,” Mattis said. “They want community college students. They want single mothers who are working a job, taking care of their parents and doing this virtual academy. So you’re not an outlier who isn’t going to be considered—you are actually exactly who they are looking for.”
Merlo, a student in PBSC’s Dr. Floyd F. Koch Honors College, is also aiming for a NASA career. He has recently completed the online portion of the NCAS program and looks forward to the opportunity to attend an onsite NASA experience this fall. Merlo attends PBSC part time and hopes to study aerospace engineering at either the University of Florida or Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University after he graduates in spring 2020.
In reflecting on the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, Merlo says he thinks of Mars the way people 50 years ago thought of the moon. His final project for the NCAS program was to read and analyze NASA’s plans for human missions to Mars by the 2030s.
“Mars is my moon, so to speak,” Merlo said. “I always thought we’d get to Mars one day, yet I didn’t think it would be in my lifetime. But to see those plans and think about actually being alive when they land on Mars—it’s going to be a game-changer for my thought process. It’s very exciting stuff!”
Lilian Jordan, PBSC physics professor and department chair for physical sciences, has no doubt that her students of today might very well be among those who make the Mars mission a reality.
“The NCAS and L’Space programs are a tremendous opportunity for students to interact with NASA professionals and gain hands-on knowledge and experience that could contribute to making that dream come true.”
Indeed, Jordan is contacted regularly by NASA with reminders to tell her students about the application deadlines for their programs.
“Over the years, we have had so many students participate—we are definitely well known to NASA,” she said. “It just illustrates the quality of our students. They want more of our students.”
However, Mattis and Merlo give credit to Jordan and their other PBSC professors.
“Their support helps me stay on track and have confidence, and that’s something you need when you’re applying to these programs,” Merlo said. “It’s good to know that the professors have your back, and they really do want to help you succeed if you want to succeed yourself.”