"Do you know how far our moon is from Earth?" asked Mark Leon, manager of the Robotics Alliance Project at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., to a group of middle school students gathered before him.
At first, nobody knew the answer. Leon nodded his head and turned to the white board behind him and wrote a few mathematical equations, which he explained to the students. After some contemplation, one student bravely answered that the distance is 384,400 kilometers.
Leon's question came during a demonstration of the latest exploration robots built by volunteer students. Recently, 320 students from Ronald McNair Academy in East Palo Alto, Calif., were given an opportunity to discover their dreams and future aspirations during a two-hour tour of Ames.
The school is named after Ronald McNair, one of the crewmembers who lost their lives during the Challenger accident and the second African-American in space.
The field trip in late October provided an opportunity for the students, their teachers, and school volunteers to get a rare behind the scenes look at some of NASA Ames' facilities and projects. Highlights of the visit included tours of the Robotics Lab, Future Flight Central (FFC), the Vehicle Motion Simulator, Fluid Mechanics Lab, and the National Full-Scale Aerodynamics Complex (NFAC), which is a 80x120-foot wind tunnel.
One of NASA's educational goals is to inspire and engage students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) content. McNair, who graduated with a doctorate in physics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is an inspiration for students.
"Education is the foundation to accomplish all your dreams and goals," said Donald James, acting director of Ames' New Ventures and Communication Directorate.
Awe-inspired by the sophisticated facilities and technology, students were ecstatic as they walked into the FFC. The facility supports a wide range of research in aerospace systems and operations, human factors, and aviation safety. The two-story facility offers a 360-degree full-scale view of any air traffic control center in the world. During the tour students saw a simulation of the Los Angeles (LAX) airport where the students participated in changing the weather.
"This is so cool!" one enthusiastic young male student shouted during the tour of the FCC. Others were equally impressed. "Can we create a tornado?" asked a female classmate.
Teachers also gave the visit a thumbs up, visibly demonstrating that these tours are good educational tools and a good example of how NASA Ames is committed to supporting education for our nation's future leaders.