Summer Research Program Shoots for the Stars With a Mission to Mars

A rendering of MarsThis year’s Summer Research Program project Mission to Mars took its students out of the classroom and far, far away—virtually, of course. In Associate Professor Alice Baldridge’s program, students learned how to design a mission to Mars, working as a team of engineers and scientists, developing mission and science goals, and learning about instruments, measurements, and the engineering requirements for the spacecraft.

“My students are working in a cohort with a student from Riverside and a student from Howard to design a mission to Mars,” Baldridge began. “They are being supervised by myself and Serina Diniega, a scientist at JPL [Jet Propulsion Lab], with guidance from several engineers from the JPL.” Students also met individually with an engineer to help develop their part of the mission.

Baldridge applauded the program’s goal of bringing together science and engineering, which she says is critical to such a mission. “It’s really important that scientists and engineers be able to work together,” Baldridge explained, “because the scientists have the questions that they want to answer, and then the engineers build it. So, if you can get the communication down between them, this will ease your exploration exponentially.” Baldridge stressed the importance of teaching these skills to undergraduate students, as having the ability to communicate and collaborate will help them through their entire careers.

Junior Ben Harte felt incredibly fortunate to be chosen for the program. “Being involved with NASA and JPL, and all these really high-profile teams, is really cool. It’s something I’ve wanted to do ever since I was a kid,” he said. An engineering major, Harte said, “I think that engineering and physics go hand in hand, especially mechanical engineering. Right now, I’m looking at working toward a mechanical engineering degree and hopefully, working somewhere like JPL on rocket systems satellites.”

“The exciting part of every day is waking up, think about spaceships, and mastering models,” Harte said with a laugh. “But the most exciting thing I get to do is work with my team.” From top left: Mission to Mars students Morgan McDaniel '21, Ben Harte '22, and Andrew Glover '22.

Senior Morgan McDaniel studies Environmental Science and appreciated several aspects of the project, especially, “being able to meet all the different scientists and engineers at NASA. Ben and I also got to participate in a huge conference on Zoom in Colorado,” she added.

“I’m interested in studying geology,” McDaniel said. “I think this project confirmed my interests and has helped me realize that I do really love research, and that I would like to continue and go to grad school.”

Junior 3+2 Engineering major Andrew Glover echoed the others’ excitement over working with science and engineering professionals. “It seemed like the perfect way to get real-world experience,” Glover said. “I got to do a one-on-one Zoom call with a JPL engineer who shared his experience in working on the Telecom systems for past Mars missions. He gave me detailed knowledge and a lot of insight on how missions are dreamt up at JPL.”

“I was surprised at how hard the process was to formulate our main science question,” Glover added. “It required a lot of research on past missions and a sifting through a bunch of NASA goals that we could try to achieve with small satellites. Our mentor, Alice Baldridge, gave us some great resources that led us in the right direction.”

Baldridge says that coming up with a remote project due to COVID demands this summer helped her create a stronger program. “Because of COVID,” Baldridge explained, “I was forced to go in a more remote route, and that allowed me to think a little bit more creatively and design a collaborative project, which I think serves students better in the long run. Offering an opportunity for students to get a little bit more experience and build skills that they wouldn’t necessarily is invaluable for them. I think it would be cool to do it again, even if we can be in person.”

McDaniel agreed. “Even with us being in the middle of the pandemic, it’s still been a great experience,” she said. “It has been fun and very valuable.”

This project was based on a summer school experience that both Baldridge and Diniega participated in when they were in graduate school called TeamX—a program that’s mostly for post-doctorate-level students. “I did this, and it was really useful because beforehand,” Baldridge said, “I had no idea what actually went into planning a mission.”

At the end of this summer's program, students presented their mission to engineers from different institutions in the JPL. They will write and present reports on the program in October.

For more information on Summer Research Program, click here.