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A trajectory toward science

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By Ramsey Scott

If you’re trying to inspire kids to pursue a career in science, engineering, math or technology, it helps to have an astronaut and some liquid nitrogen on your side. 

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Lockheed Martin opened up its Waterton Facility in Littleton to about 1,400 kids last Thursday as part of its nationwide Young Minds at Work Day. Company employees brought their kids and their kids’ friends for a day of science-based fun that featured NASA astronaut Rex Walheim, along with a few rockets and frozen rubber balls.

Walheim, who was part of two space shuttle Atlantis missions that went to the International Space Station, spoke to a crowded auditorium filled with students about life as an astronaut, including the delicate procedure involved with going to the bathroom in space. 

“You’ve got to be careful — let’s just put it that way,” he said. 

Walheim, who was on the final Atlantis mission before NASA’s space shuttle program ended, also discussed the Orion project, for which he is an astronaut adviser. Orion is being built primarily by Lockheed Martin in Littleton and will be the next generation of manned spacecraft to carry astronauts on deep-space missions to the moon, asteroids and eventually Mars.

“I really like to come out to the people who are building (the spacecraft) and say thanks,” Walheim said. “Without their work, it wouldn’t be possible.” 

Student Ernesto Cordray, 17, was impressed with Walheim’s presentation.

“It was amazing to see him talk. He’s been outside the planet,” Cordray said.

The company hosts the event to inspire kids to get involved in science, said Gary Napier, spokesman for Lockheed Martin. The goal is to ensure there is a future crop of scientists — especially to help keep Lockheed Martin supplied with scientists and engineers. 

“It piques an interest in following a career in math or science,” said Kevin Rudolph, Lockheed Martin’s system design lead for the unmanned Juno spacecraft currently headed to Jupiter. “To me, there’s not as much excitement now for space travel as there was 20 or 30 years ago. It’s become somewhat routine in the eyes of the public.”

Rudolph, who brought his 12-year-old daughter, Julia, to the event, said it’s important to show the kids the possibilities a career in science and math can offer. 

“I’m more of a hands-on learner, as opposed to hearing someone talk about doing it,” Julia said, as she and her father built a satellite out of graham crackers, candy and frosting.

And while building a satellite out of sweets might not seem like a scientific endeavor, Rudolph said the principles the kids learned in the exercise are the same ones he and his fellow designers rely on every day. 

“These kind of things, in a kid-like way, are very much the same things we do every day in building a spacecraft,” Rudolph said. “It’s fun to see the kids come up with their own ideas.”

Inspiring the youngsters to become excited about science is why employees like Dave Wurts, a space technology developer, participate in the program.

Wurts adopted the persona of “Captain Nitro” to show kids the different properties of liquid nitrogen, which has a temperature of around minus-300 degrees Fahrenheit. Wurts used the super-cold substance to talk about the different stages of matter and the cold vacuum of space while he froze a few objects.  

Freezing a rubber racquetball, then shattering it into pieces, is somewhat dramatic, but it does get kids excited about math and science, Wurts said. 

“It’s fun and inspirational,” Wurts said. “They get to see it firsthand and go home with a little piece of a racquetball.”

Contact Ramsey Scott at ramsey@evergreenco.com or 303-933-2233, ext. 22 and follow him on Twitter @RamseyColumbine.