COCOA BEACH, Fla. - A team of students at Laguna/Acoma High School in New
Mexico is helping NASA explore Mars. They're one of only 13 student groups
selected by Cornell University as student interns for the Mars Exploration
Geologist Larry Crumpler, a research curator at the New Mexico Museum of
Natural History and Science wanted to get New Mexico students involved.
Science and math teacher Joe Aragon at Laguna/Acoma High School sent the
winning proposal for how the program would help their students.
The Laguna/Acoma High School has approximately 400 students and 35
teachers. It's a public school located on the Laguna pueblo reservation in
a rural area. The student body is about 80 percent American Indian and 20
percent Hispanic. Aragon selected students who had shown initiative in the
past and would be active participants.
Spirit and Opportunity landed on Mars Jan. 3 and 24. Each intern group got
to visit NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) for a week and help the
scientists. The Laguna/Acoma students were fortunate enough to visit during
one of the most exciting periods of the mission - while preparing for the
landing of the second spacecraft on Mars the first spacecraft wouldn't
respond to commands from Earth.
Aragon and students Mark Vallejos, 18, and Brandon Herrera, 16, arrived at
JPL on Jan. 18, two weeks after Spirit's landing. Their first night
coincided with the Acoma Pueblo's pilgrimage for the safety and welfare of
the tribe and the world. Aragon noted, "Because of cultural religious
activities at home, it was especially important for me to stay awake and
active [that] night. This all-night observance was for the support of the
individuals involved in a religious pilgrimage back home, so it made it
doubly significant for me this first night 'on Mars.'"
Aragon and his students attended meetings with the scientists. The meetings
discussed the progress as well as which rock was most interesting to look
at next and which science instruments should be used.
The interns were put to work, measuring the sizes of tiny pebbles and rocks
in the photos. The Mars scientists have a simple method of keeping track of
what's what on Mars - nicknames. During the 1996 Mars Pathfinder mission
one rock looked like Yogi Bear, so it got nicknamed "Yogi." That earned the
team a personal cartoon from Yogi's creator Bill Hanna.
One football-size rock stood out. Principal scientist Steve Squires said
that the preliminary name "pyramid" was too boring so they'd have to find a
more distinguished name. The team chose Adirondack, after the Adirondack
mountain range in New York. In the official release NASA noted "The word
Adirondack is Native American and is interpreted by some to mean 'They of
the great rocks.'"
Engineers sent Spirit the commands to drive up to Adirondack and put its
arm against the rock. The arm includes a drill to cut away the surface and
peer into the rock, a microscope camera, and a chemical analyzer. But just
as Spirit reached Adirondack on Jan. 21 it stopped communicating with
While some engineers tried to determine what went wrong with Spirit the
rest of the team prepared for Opportunity's landing on Mars. After the
incredibly successful Spirit landing several weeks earlier, but mysterious
communications problems, everyone was anxious.
The Laguna/Acoma team was scheduled to go home on Jan. 24. But that night
the second spacecraft, Opportunity was going to land. It was a chance they
didn't want to pass up.
"We had to give up our apartment because the next team was supposed to take
over," Aragon said. Even without a place to stay Aragon and the students
decided it was worth it to hang around another day.
They watched the Opportunity landing with the Spirit scientists, away from
the bedlam in the mission control room where anxious engineers monitored
the landing, with high level NASA officials and VIPs looking over their
shoulders. "As it got closer to the landing we saw a flurry of activities
in the science building and it was really exciting. It was a pretty anxious
time for everybody we noticed there. When it landed I even felt relieved, I
was nervous," Aragon said.