This is not quite a request for help from the Apollo 13 astronauts to the mission control center in Houston, but close enough. It is a message of encouragement from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientists and engineers in a Mars mission to youngsters who participated in Junior FIRST LEGO League Expo in Livingston, New Jersey.
The journey began early last year, when dozens of children as young as kindergarteners to third graders formed teams to participate in a robotics program called Junior FIRST LEGO League (Jr.FLL). The program was established by a partnership between FIRST of New Hampshire and The LEGO Group. Children from different parts of Northern New Jersey gathered each week to do research projects and build their LEGO models to learn more about transportation, which was the theme of last year's Challenge called "Smart Move". Some of them were from neighborhood friends in Livingston, East Hanover, Clifton and Cedar Grove areas, and some were from an after-school program of an elementary school in Livingston.
At the end of the season last May, Livingston Robotics Club (LRC) hosted a Jr.FLL Expo at the Town Oval during Livingston’s Youth Appreciation Week to showcase the work of these children. LRC contacted NASA to request for their help in bringing a space travel exhibition to its Expo. LRC collaborated with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to implement 'Imagine Mars' workshop as one of the activities in the Expo by hoping that not only will it help children to think outside of the box, but also outside of the Earth.
At the Expo, the Jr.FLL participants were busy explaining to the public about their project. At the same time, LRC volunteers were trying to make a contact to NASA's JPL in California for a live video conference, just in time for the highlight of the day. A NASA/JPL engineer, Ravi Prakash, showed the participants their next Mars rover named 'Curiosity' to be launched later this year as part of the Mars Science Laboratory mission. He even threw in a live feed of their laboratory that they use to test the rover.
Children went home with medals in their hands after the all-day fun pack. They were so fascinated with the Mars mission and they later regrouped last summer to write some thoughtful messages to Curiosity to wish her luck in the mission.
"Have a good trip," and “good luck and have fun!" are a couple of examples of the messages from these children. Some children asked Curiosity to find rock samples and requested a favor to search for alien life there.
In the meantime, Curiosity has been very busy testing and preparing herself for the journey. Only until recently, her mission team finally had a bit of time to respond back to the children.
“Thanks for all the well wishes. Keep up with all your math & science and look for Curiosity on Mars!” wrote a mysterious mission team member who represented the whole Curiosity mission team. Perhaps, that might be Curiosity herself.
Some key members of the mission team took time to add their own message. One read, “Keep the dream alive!”
“Keep it up!” wrote Joy Crisp, deputy project scientist.
“Keep reaching for the stars!” wrote Jordan Evans, deputy flight system manager.
Other key members who added personal message to the card include Dara Sabahi, integrated system engineering lead; Ashwin Vasavada, deputy project scientists; Matt Wallace, flight system manager; John “Jeff” Simmonds, payload managers; and Richard Brace, chief project assurance manager.
The children met again at the Livingston Library on February 19 to see what the mission team has accomplished so far. It was also the first time to reveal the responses from NASA’s JPL.
“Cool. This is awesome getting a card from NASA,” Ethan Markon, 9, expressed after seeing the response.
“The rover is cool. I love it,” added Tien Rattanasoontorn, age six.
A first grader, Justine Chen, added that he loves the thinking of the mission team and he thinks they are “cool at everything.” Colin Agbayani was convinced that the rover will succeed in the mission. Another member, Ton Rattanasoontorn, was impressed with the amount of work done by the mission team and expressed that “NASA is a lot of work.”
None of these children may have heard the noisy recording of Swigert and Lovell's famous quote, "Houston, we've had a problem," from the lunar mission 40 years ago, but they will remember a clear inspirational message from the Mars mission team this time.
“Curiosity is huge and cool! I wish I was a scientist too, just like you!” Sacha Nithikasem, a second grade girl, wrote in a paper with a drawing of herself next to Curiosity.
After the dust has settled, a full-size replica of the card that was used to send messages between the children and Curiosity is now with the mission team at NASA's JPL in California. Each participant also received a half-size replica of this card as a reminder that Curiosity may have made a head start in getting ready to set her feet on Mars first, but perhaps it won't be too long before they could be one of the very first people to set their own feet on Mars as well.
LRC plans to host its Jr.FLL Expo (http://www.livingstonrobotics.org/expo/) again on May 28. This year's Challenge is called "Body Forward" which is the theme about Biomedical Engineering. The Jr.FLL program is still open to accept new participants until the end of April. We will have a chance to once again see what kids can come up with, and who might step up to inspire our future scientists and engineers in the field of Biomedical Engineering.