NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Tom Hoffman had a plan to make the younger children in his audience see science as cool and explain that local residents are doing some great work: giving them an imagination-expanding glimpse into the InSight spacecraft mission to Mars.
At a recent STEAM event for grades K-8 held at the La Cañada Elementary School cafeteria, Hoffman said InSight makes this a great time to teach kids science. STEAM is an educational concept that stands for science, technology, engineering, arts and math.
“There’s a lot of ‘cool, wow’ factor,” said Hoffman, a project manager for InSight. “So if we can get more kids in [these] programs, that’s a win for the whole globe, frankly. Whether they end up at JPL or somewhere else, that doesn’t matter. If they’re studying science and technology, that’s good.”
About 70 students and parents attended the event, said Amy Nespor, La Cañada Unified School District’s community science liaison.
Many youths went from one table to another, enjoying different science tasks involving such topics as robotics and earthquakes, the latter illustrated with the help of a Slinky toy.
“I really enjoyed it,” said Andrew Huh, 10, who attends Palm Crest Elementary School. “When I was younger, like last year, I wanted to build bots for NASA. Then I kind of changed my mind a little, but I really want to build bots.”
He added he found Hoffman’s presentation fascinating. “Last year, in my science club we had a program and it was about InSight Mars. This was more descriptive.”
Sophie Du, 8, also from PCR, described the event as “very cool” and said she had learned a lot.
“I know that triangles are the best buildings to hide in an earthquake,” she said.
She wasn’t sure if she wanted to become an engineer or join another science profession.
“Not really, but I do want to know more,” she said.
Before introducing Hoffman, Nespor told the audience that InSight is short for Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport. The mission features the first outer-space explorer to study the “inner space” of Mars, she said.
The spacecraft launched on May 5 and is scheduled to land on the planet Monday, Nov. 26.
Before the kids went to the hands-on experiments, Hoffman explained what they could learn from the event — including information on thermal blanketing that keeps the spacecraft warm, parachute material used to slow down the spacecraft in the atmosphere and features of the lander itself.
“It’s basically like aluminum foil wrapped up in honeycomb … so it’s actually kind of stiff,” Hoffman said of the lander’s building material. “And then we add in composite or aluminum on top of that so it’s really light yet strong.”
During the talk, he told the children the spacecraft had a great launch that no one watched unless they got up at 4:05 a.m. that day in May.
“You would have seen a spectacular stream across the sky,” Hoffman said of the launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base on California’s central coast, adding it could be seen from Santa Barbara to San Diego.
He showed some amateur video of the spacecraft in the sky as well as colorful images and photos to accompany his talk.
Since the launch, officials have been making some small changes to the spacecraft to make sure it will be ready to land in the appropriate spot.
“We’re doing little changes to the trajectory,” Hoffman said.
The landing will be available for viewing at 11 a.m. Monday on YouTube and a special invitation-only viewing party at JPL. Hoffman said the mission would include measuring earthquakes — he called them Marsquakes — on Mars with a seismometer.
“We’re going to Mars so we can understand what’s inside Mars,” Hoffman said.
Anyone interested in learning more about the launch can watch it at nasa.gov/ntv and youtube.com/user/JPLraw/live. InSight is scheduled to enter the atmosphere at 11:47 a.m. and land by 11:54 a.m., Nespor said. To watch news conferences and commentary online, visit youtube.com/nasajpl/live.