May 30, 2009
English class sets course for Martian mission
Cortland eighth-graders take international honors in NASA Space Settlement Contest
An eighth-grade English class at Cortland Junior-Senior High School spent part of Friday explaining its vision of an orbiting space station to state Sen. James Seward.
Stephanie Passeri’s 25 students tied for first place in their division of NASA’s Space Settlement Contest, along with a school from India.
The students became the eighth team from the school to place first in the competition since 1999.
The students spent the month of March researching and planning a space station orbiting Mars. They created a fictional nation to build the station, with a government, health care system, educational system and methods for building, powering and living aboard the station itself.
They had to show how they would use the Martian polar caps as water sources for oxygen and water, and Helium 3 deposits on Mars and metals from asteroids to make the station’s structure. They also planned the foundation for terraforming the surface of Mars, making its conditions more like Earth’s over several centuries, for colonization.
The students called their entry MEGA and based their station on research from publications and Web sites, collected in papers written by each student and sent to NASA’s Ames Research Center in California.
Seward listened to a PowerPoint presentation about it and gave each student copies of proclamations honoring them in the state Senate and state Assembly, sponsored by Seward (R-Milford) and Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton (D-Ithaca).
Cortland tied for first in the large school division for grades six through nine, with Apeejay School in Jalandhar, India.
Passeri’s classes have entered the competition every year since 1998, when she learned about the program from former astronaut and U.S. Sen. John Glenn, whom she met when her students compiled a book of research into space exploration.
Cortland teams also placed first in 2000, 2002, 2003, 2005 and 2007. Two Cortland teams tied for first in 2000 and 2007.
CJSHS teams took second place four times, third place four times and honorable mention twice.
More than 280 schools entered this year, from 13 nations. Most of the honors went to schools from India, Romania and Hong Kong, according to NASA’s Web site.
The project was coordinated by a team: captain Hannah Zhang, co-captain Carli Korik and officers Zach Forrester, Darby Wood, Lydia Polley and Hannah Stockton.
As Seward watched along with several other adults, the students took turns discussing aspects of the project: making the structure from Kevlar over a carbon composite shell, creating an air supply with electrolysis of water melted from the polar caps, using a new kind of rocket to travel between Mars and Earth in three months instead of nine, facing the health issues of living in space, managing human waste and promoting tourism.
The students also presented plans for keeping people safe from crime and playing sports in zero or low gravity.
“The students brainstormed and then divided up the research,” Passeri said. “They decided the project’s needs and then who to work with.”
Passeri said her students have gone on to study space sciences. One student on the 2001 team, Brad Cheetham, just graduated from University at Buffalo with degrees in aerospace and mechanical engineering. He has a graduate fellowship to the University of Colorado and has worked at NASA.
Passeri was excited that the students found a Canadian company exploring magnetized target fusion, a little-developed form of fusion energy, as they looked for an energy source for the station.
Seward joked that he did not recall studying such topics in English class.
“This is such a great learning tool for all of you,” Seward said. “This teaches lifelong skills of problem-solving and teamwork.”
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