Children bounced on their knees and shot their hands into the air, hoping the NASA scientist would call on them.
Roger Hunter visited Chestnut Mountain Creative School of Inquiry on Friday to discuss his work as associate director for programs in NASA’s Ames Research Center in California.
Principal Wade Pearce said the visit from Hunter was an important educational opportunity for the school and its students.
“This is a really incredible opportunity, a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see somebody who is very, very involved at NASA and in something called the Kepler project,” Pearce said.
For six years, Hunter worked as project manager for Kepler, NASA’s first mission capable of finding Earth-sized planets in habitable zones orbiting other stars in the Milky Way Galaxy.
Hunter explained to students the vast number of stars in the universe, and the even greater number of planets.
“Think about all of the beaches all over this planet,” Hunter said. “Just think, if you could count all the grains of sand on all those beaches, that’d be a lot of grains of sand. There are more stars in the universe than there are grains of sand on all the beaches on planet Earth.”
Hunter said the Kepler mission helped determine that there are even more planets than stars in existence.
Space exploration and understanding are likely to advance greatly over the next several decades, according to Hunter, with massive advances likely to occur during the lifetimes of the students at Chestnut Mountain.
“Over the coming decades, you are going to see giant strides forward in finding Earthlike habitable worlds beyond our solar system,” he said. “Your generation will be the first to confirm a life-bearing planet beyond our solar system, if we fulfill our astrophysics road map.”
Hunter shared technology currently being developed with the students Friday, including a seven-minute video about the new spacecraft Orion, which has its first test launch Dec. 4, and photos of two humanoid robots, Robonaut 2 and 5, which received a roar of excitement from the audience.
“We are getting to the point where we are using robots on board the International Space Station,” Hunter said. “There’s one up there now called R2. We put him up there some time ago ... and eventually we’re going to be giving instructions to these robots to go outside the space station and do maintenance so we can take some workload off the astronauts.”
Hunter said the students had excellent questions for him following his presentation.
“One kid asked the question, ‘Does time speed up in space?’” Hunter said. “That was amazing. Another asked how you know if planets are habitable. They had some amazing questions and that’s why I like doing this.
“Kids don’t have some of the inhibitions that adults do, and they go right to the chase and ask really great questions.”
Hunter said he never turns down an opportunity to speak with young students, because they are the future of space exploration.
“If I ever have an opportunity and my schedule isn’t too packed for me to do something like this, I will do it,” he said. “These kids are important, and we need to make sure they understand what’s going on in space exploration and that they understand they bring the future.”