Harper College student Kristen O’Mara had a professor who urged her to shoot for the stars.
She took the encouragement literally.
O’Mara, a North Aurora resident with a penchant for astronomy, will spend part of her fall developing a prototype Mars rover and presenting that project – along with plans for a Mars mission she says could be a precursor to human exploration – to NASA engineers.
She earned the privilege after a summer of work in NASA’s Community College Aerospace Scholars program – an endeavor that had her planning a detailed Mars mission, compete with a detailed drawing of a rover that could perform complex planetary experiments.
O’Mara was one of only 180 students in the nation, and the only one from Illinois, selected for the competitive program; fewer than 50 of them landed the subsequent opportunity to travel, like she will, to the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. to work directly with engineers. She'll go there in November.
“I knew this program would be an amazing opportunity to expand my knowledge of astronomy and NASA, and I initially had no expectation of even being accepted,” says O’Mara, a mathematics major who says she’s inspired by NASA’s vision. “There are so many things about NASA and astronomy that interest me. We know a lot about the universe, but there is so much more that we don’t know. So much is a mystery, and that makes it so intriguing to me.”
O’Mara, who plans to transfer to Northwestern University with a goal of eventually earning a Ph.D., honed her interest in astronomy in a Harper course last semester. She applied for the NASA program on the urging of Associate Professor Bhasker Moorthy, who O’Mara says has a “contagious passion” for the subject that contributed to her own growing curiosity.
Since earning a spot in the competitive program, she has communicated regularly with NASA employees – studying math, science, engineering and computer science with their online guidance – and developed a proposed $670 million Mars mission. (Broken down, that’s nearly $195 million in launch costs and nearly $341 million for the actual rover, among other things.)
The rover she conceptualized is fitted with devices to assess radiation levels on the Martian surface, measure the effects of radiation on red blood cells and analyze the chemical weathering of the planet’s rocky surface to discover its climate history.
She hopes to someday work for NASA, and potentially teach related courses to college students.