January 20, 2022

Cortland students win NASA award

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Team captains look on as Cornell University mechanical and aerospace engineer Mason Peck hands out certificates to Cortland Junior High eighth-graders Friday, recognizing them for winning the Space Settlement Design Contest sponsored by NASA.

A NASA award and an English class may seem an unlikely pairing, but that is exactly what took place during an assembly Friday for Cortland Junior High School English students.

The students were awarded by a past NASA chief technologist, Mason Peck, who recognized their innovation in designing conceptual space satellites. The eighth-graders recently tied for first place in the eighth grade category of the 2017 NASA Space Settlement Contest, tying with a school from St. Louis, Missouri, from among 1,500 submissions.

The students designed four satellites to orbit at different levels in space: The Lunar QUAD would orbit between Earth and the moon, the Mars QUAD would orbit Mars, the Earth QUAD would orbit close to the earth and the Tandem QUAD would travel between Mars and Uranus to get helium-3. Each satellite, or QUAD, would vary in size and how many people it can hold.

The project is part of English class partly because of Common Core requires 50 percent of the reading students do to be nonfiction. However, teacher Stephanie Passeri-Densmore has been partaking in the competition since 1999 and says its extensive annotation and bibliography requirements makes it a perfect fit for English class.

Students were broken into groups to address aspects of living in space, such as how to get oxygen from breaking down water from ice on the moon, and how to mine for minerals on other planets with robotic equipment.

Students came up with their own guiding principles for the federations, determined what activities would be available for residents, how they would eat and how water and oxygen would be obtained. They also explained what each satellite would be made of.

They needed to choose materials keeping in mind the need to protect residents from radiation, drastic temperature changes, and space debris. They layered their satellite structures with materials like Kevlar, which is very strong and X-Aerogel, which protects against radiation.

The Mars QUAD would have four settlements, each with a purpose: residential, commercial, agricultural or industrial. It would have to spin to mimic gravity and avoid health problems residents would experience in low gravity Passeri-Densmore is proud of the accomplishment as every year she has seen her students place among the top three finalists. She is retiring at the end of the year so this year’s award held special meaning.

And her efforts were not unnoticed by her students, either.

“She worked really hard for us to get this,” said eighth-grader Delaney Price. Passeri-Densmore often worked late into night to help get everything done.

Price, who focused on the agricultural component of living on the lunar QUAD, said she learned how to grow food and the right proportion of soil to water needed for plants to flourish. It took extensive research.

“We worked really hard on the project for a pretty long time,” she said. “There were articles we had to find at the library or online and we had to keep track of all our notes.”

“It takes a lot of abstract thinking, you’ve got to think outside the box for stuff to work,” said Michael Guido, who focused on creating the proper magnetic force to live on Mars.

Peck said the first place prize was well deserved. “It was innovative, it was thorough, it was broad,” he said, and the kind of satellites the students devised could become a reality in the next 100 years.

“This is very far-out stuff, it’s what’s wonderful about it. So often you’re afraid to stretch the imagination,” Peck said. “We have to have the big visions if we’re going to move forward. Merely incremental steps will never get us to settle a solar system, which is what seems to be the goal here.”