HARTSELLE — Hartselle High School senior Nick Watson said his heart was beating as he huddled with classmates Wednesday to learn whether their scientific payload could someday fly in a NASA space mission.
He later said a “gigantic weight” had been lifted from his shoulders as his peers hoisted a trophy for taking first place at the InSPIRESS competition, hosted Monday by the University of Alabama in Huntsville and NASA.
Watson, who plans to study aerospace engineering after graduation in May, said the recognition by UAH and NASA helped him reach one of life’s milestones.
“I’ve literally never won anything in my life,” he said. “There’s been a lot of stress trying to get the payload as perfect as we can. ... I feel like the door to a successful career has just opened wide.”
The senior-level engineering students, who didn’t place in last year’s competition, will travel to Washington, D.C., in March, where they will present their findings to Jim Green, director of planetary science for NASA.
Their payload design also will be submitted for use in a space mission.
Michael Powell, 18, said it was a surreal experience to win his six-team division, which UAH engineer P.J. Benfield described as the most competitive. There were 28 total Alabama teams.
“It’s a relief because they told us Monday they wouldn’t come here unless we had won something, and finding out,” Powell stopped to take a breath, “ ... is a wonderful feeling.”
Inspired by the computer game Angry Birds, the class calls itself ANGGRI BIRD, an acronym for Analyzing the Native Geology of Ganymede as a Result of Intrusion By an Impactor to Receive Data.
To prepare for the competition, the team last month conducted an ice experiment, which involved shooting pellets into ice sheets to observe the size and shape of the debris field. The group used ice because the surface of Ganymede, a moon of Jupiter and the largest moon in the solar system, is frozen.
Kimberly Pittman, the students’ science teacher, said the team developed a poster, T-shirt, brochure, booth and digital presentation to accompany the scientific payload.
“It’s almost like being a parent,” she said. “I’m proud of them and have watched them grow and develop skills. ... To go from not having those skills to being the best at it is very gratifying.”
The group took first place for its payload concept proposal, second place for its booth at UAH’s open house and first place for its presentation before NASA employees and scientists at Marshall Space Flight Center.
Chris Brown, 17, who served as the group’s head of engineering, doesn’t mind giving up his spring break in March to show off the payload to top NASA officials in Washington.
Brown said he is humbled that his class project, once just a concept, will be considered for a future NASA mission within the next decade.
“Most kids can’t say that,” he said. “If it is selected — that would be really mind-blowing.”
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