In the 2030s, NASA hopes to send four people aboard the Orion spacecraft on a 500-million mile, round-trip mission to Mars. For that to happen, astronauts, engineers, technicians and staff have a lot to do to prepare.
That is what Jarvis Middle School students learned from NASA’s Scott Wilson, the Orion Program’s Production Operations Manager.
Mr. Wilson, a 1984 graduate of Frankfort-Schuyler High School, spent more than one hour sharing about the Orion Program and answering student questions during a Jarvis assembly.
He opened with a video presentation on the Orion Program. The video explains what NASA has accomplished to date and describes Orion’s four future missions: an unmanned trip around the moon, a robotic mission to capture and place an asteroid in moon orbit, a manned trip to land on the asteroid and collect samples, and a 16-month, manned, round trip to Mars.
Here’s a portion of what he presented:
Stories of rocket launches by private companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin and travel to the International Space Station are commonplace. Orion is something entirely different.
To put Orion’s trips in perspective, he asked four students to represent Earth, the International Space Station, the moon, and Mars and challenged them to spread out in the auditorium’s center aisle to represent the distances. It was an impossible task. The space station is just 240 miles above the Earth. The moon is 240,000 miles away. Mars is 249 million miles away. Even if the two students representing the Earth and the space station stood just one inch apart, the person representing the moon would have to stand 83 feet away, almost to the back of the auditorium. The person representing Mars would be more than 15 miles away!
Mr. Wilson then asked for questions.
Hands shot up across the auditorium. Students asked how much a rocket weighs (5.7 million pounds), how much an astronaut earns (starts at $70,000), how much a spacesuit weighs (about 200 pounds), what he doesn’t like about his job (he likes it all), and what he wishes he could do in job (fly in the space craft). Every question seemed to spawn another. After an hour, it seemed the number of raised hands had not decreased.
Unfortunately, he had another appointment, but promised he would answer any questions submitted through principal Melissa Hoskey.
Local student accomplishes great things
Mrs. Hoskey said Mr. Wilson helped her students imagine the limitless opportunities before them. Like him, they can pursue their dreams—even into space.
“He comes from the Valley. He worked hard in college and in his career to rise to the top of his field. He is proof that hard work and commitment pay off,” she said.
Mr. Wilson is someone to whom the students could relate. He is not what you immediately think of when you think “nerdy rocket scientist.” He did well at Frankfort-Schuyler, but afterward said, “I wasn’t the valedictorian.” He attended Mohawk Valley Community College, then transferred to Florida State University where he earned his Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering. He went on to earn a Master of Science in engineering management from the University of Central Florida.
He began with NASA in 1991 as an engineer on the space shuttle. By 2007, his work earned him several promotions, ultimately landing him in his current posting as the Orion Program Production Operations Manager. In his role, he oversees the manufacturing, assembly, and testing of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (the part of the rocket that will carry the astronauts to the asteroid and Mars).
So what does that mean? He is head of a team of NASA employees who take plans and specifications from NASA’s design engineers and coordinate the manufacture of more than 300,000 parts made by hundreds of different companies across the United States. The team is responsible for the NASA staff who assemble those parts into the space craft. Finally, his team repeatedly tests the components and systems to ensure their flawless operation.
Science presentations can be too technical or boring for many middle school students. Mrs. Hoskey said she did not know what to expect from his visit.
Mr. Wilson, however, was the perfect person to serve as Orion’s ambassador. His broad smile and willingness to explain complex concepts in easy-to-understand terms quickly drew the students into the presentation. He was soon as popular as a professional athlete or entertainer.
When asked later if he ever dreamed growing up that he would become a “rockstar,” he just grinned and said, “No.”