D181 students interview NASA scientist

Ellis discusses returning to the moon, landing on Mars and many other topics in webinar

It's not every day that you get to interview a rocket scientist.

But that's exactly what eight students from Hinsdale and Clarendon Hills middle schools did last week for a District 181 Foundation webinar with David Ellis of the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.

"I was always really interested in space and wanted to meet an astronaut for a long time," said Taylor Muehlhauser, a seventh-grader at HMS. "I thought it was a really cool opportunity to talk to someone with this professional experience and status so they could tell us what it's like to work at NASA."

The slots were open to all interested middle school students and were filled on a first-come, first-served basis, said Meg Cooper, the foundation's executive director.

"This webinar was not just a speaker that the District 181 Foundation thought would be interesting to D181 students, it was a format designed to give students a 'real world' opportunity of being an interviewer in a live program," said Cooper, noting that students worked with Heather Scott, an HMS language arts teacher.

The students each did research on their own before meeting as a group to choose the questions to pose to Ellis.

"We just had sessions where we would brainstorm and review questions, and we had a session where we all picked a few favorite questions," said HMS seventh-grader Connor Mason, noting the group started with a list of 40 possible queries. They narrowed it down to 18.

Both said they were a little nervous asking the questions on Zoom.

"We couldn't see how many people were watching us," Muehlhauser said. "We tried to present ourselves as best as possible."

Mason said he noticed at one point that the audience was more than 150 people.

"It was pretty stressful to think if you mess up all those people are going to see that," he said. "You have to put your best self forward."

Muehlhauser said she enjoyed hearing about the various components of Ellis' job at NASA, while Mason was most interested in how many planets Ellis estimated might be home to life forms.

Mason said he would be interested in going to Mars if he had the opportunity but worried abou the health risks. Muehlhauser was a definite yes.

NASA's goal to travel there was a repeated theme in Ellis' presentation and in the questions he answered. NASA expects to perform a fly-by mission to Mars around 2035 and to land people on the planet by 2040, he said.

"You are about at the right age now to be on the first trip to Mars, so think about this in the future," he told students.

First, NASA plans to return to the moon, where it will build an orbiting outpost and a small habitat on the surface.

"I grew up when we were going to the moon," he said. "It was really exciting. Everyone was behind it."

The millions of tons of ice on the moon will be a valuable resource, he said, and the time spent there will enable NASA to get to Mars.

"There is a very good chance we will build the space ship that goes to Mars on the moon," Ellis said. "By 2040 our plan is actually to put people on the surface of Mars."

Having humans on the moon and Mars is an excellent strategy for survival of the species, he noted.

"We know things fall on the earth every so often," he said. "Just ask the dinosaurs."

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Pamela Lannom is editor of The Hinsdalean