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H-B Woodlawn student participates in NASA’s VSATS program

July 23, 2014
July 23, 2014
Photo taken by NASA

“I would say the most challenging part of the Summer Academy was the time frame. We were charged with designing a human mission to Mars in only a week. This led to a lot of late nights and required quick decision making,” Alexandra Gartner said discussing National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Virginia Aerospace Science and Technology Scholars (VSATS) program. “However this is what made the Academy so much fun and allowed the teams to bond.”

Arlington County’s Alexandra Gartner, a rising senior at H-B Woodlawn in Arlington and the student advisor to the Friends of the David M. Brown Planetarium, recently spent a week at the NASA Langley Research Center (July 19-25). There she worked alongside NASA engineers and scientists to design the first human mission to Mars. Ms. Gartner was one of 180 students from across Virginia to earn a spot at the NASA Summer Academy by scoring highly in a rigorous dual credit course that prepared and tested students during the school year for the demands of the intense summer week at NASA Langley.

“The VASTS online course was custom designed to provide scholars with the background information required to design a human mission to Mars,” Alexandra said regarding the dual online course. “It consisted of eight modules which were due every two weeks and a final project. The titles of these modules were; All Systems Go!, On Orbit Ops, De-Orbit Burn, Some Assembly Required, Space Station Science, Back to the Moon, Robotic Missions to Mars, and Mission Possible.”

Alexandra was a member of the Mission Transit team charged with the transport of supplies and crew on the interplanetary journey. Other teams included:

• Mission Integration
• Science and Surface Operations
• Human Factors
• Strategic Communications

In addition to performing work that mirrors actual jobs at NASA Langley, students:

• Received tours of non-public NASA labs and other facilities.
• Participated in discussions with NASA researchers.
• Attended lectures by astronauts.
• Enjoyed private access to the Virginia Air & Space Center after hours.
• Defended their final mission at an official review panel, and earned college credit.

The class and the residential academy are part of the VASTS program, a partnership between the Virginia Space Grant Consortium and NASA Langley Research Center, with assistance from the Virginia Department of Education. The VASTS program is modeled after the award-winning Texas Aerospace Scholars program designed by NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

Ms. Gartner is the second Friends student advisor to participate in the VASTS program. Current Virginia Tech Astrophysics major Samantha Spytek, a graduate of Wakefield High School, also completed the VASTS course and went on to attend the Summer Academy following her junior year (2011-12). The student member of the Friends’ Advisory Council provides a unique resource to the Board of Directors, principally by offering a student’s perspective and ideas on the programming and other activities undertaken by the Friends in support of Arlington’s Planetarium.

“Before VASTS I planned to pursue a career related to astronomy and astrophysics. Having completed both the online course and the Summer Academy, VASTS has only confirmed my love for space,” Ms. Gartner said about her future plans. “The program also exposed me to engineering which I am now considering as a possible major as well.”

The VASTS program is only open to Virginia high school students in their Junior year who are selected through a competitive application process. Scholars who complete the distance learning college course with the highest grades are invited to the Summer Academy at NASA Langley (Hampton, Va.). There is no cost to participate; the program pays all tuition to receive college credit and provides all transportation, housing, and meals for Scholars attending the week-long Summer Academy. For further information visit the VASTS website at

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