After the last student left the theater to return to class, Gale Allen took a breath and laughed. She said she’d been warned about speaking to middle school students before her arrival.
Allen, deputy chief scientist of NASA, met with the Earhart-Edison Academy students of North Hall Middle School on Friday morning. The academy focuses on science, technology, engineering and mathematics exploration.
“Everybody says they really are intimidated when they go out to talk with middle schoolers because they’re the ones (who) ask the toughest questions,” Allen said, smiling. “These are some sharp kids, very sharp.”
Allen spoke to the students about the work scientists are doing now to transport astronauts to Mars by 2035.
Allen said a lot of work is still in order to meet that goal.
She encouraged students to ask questions as she showed them photos of the different robotic rovers gathering data on the red planet.
Many students, such as sixth-grader Connor Nichols, came prepared and asked specific questions about the technology used in space exploration.
Connor, who enjoys building robots, questioned Allen about NASA’s robotic technology. He said one day he would like to work for NASA in the robotics field.
“I thought it was cool that it brought us into this and it showed us a bunch of new robotics techniques and things we’re going to get to Mars with,” Connor said. “I thought it was pretty cool. This could be our generation, our class, maybe who could get men and women to space and bring them back.”
One student was curious to know how political tensions between countries like the U.S. and Russia impact space exploration.
Allen said learning about space requires collaboration between nations.
“Fortunately, at this point and even in the past in the Cold War, science is science,” Allen said. “It seems to rise above the politics. We still work together.”
Several students were curious about what life in space or another planet might be like for people. A number of students asked questions about the dangers of radiation and the comforts offered in bulky space suits.
Allen explained how astronauts live on board the International Space Station, an orbiting science lab about the size of a football field, and carry out experiments. One such experiment involves measuring the physical effects of being in space.
Typically astronauts spend six months on board the ISS. Though some are attempting to stay for a year to see the effects of prolonged time in space, Allen said.
Allen said while becoming an astronaut is an ambition for many — she applied to the program twice — it isn’t the only way to make a career at NASA.
Allen said careers in science, technology, engineering or math are great paths to take, but many other ways help with a mission. She encouraged students to follow their passions and find a way to use it.
“It won’t be me or my generation,” Allen said. “It will be you, because of the fact that in 20 or 30 years you’ll be the ones responsible for putting a person on Mars. So I really encourage you to think about looking at different ways you can contribute to something as exciting as that.”
Sixth-grader Lucy Frazier said she enjoys the “solid answers” in math and intends to study chemistry when she goes to college. She said she left the presentation feeling optimistic about her future.
“Really, everything is possible,” Lucy said. “Humans are really going to go farther than we are now. I think it’s really cool because we will have an impact on what’s going to happen.”