Planetary Radio • Nov 15, 2023

NASA’s STEM program looks to the Moon

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On This Episode

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Steven Smith

Education Specialist for NASA’s STEM Program, Guardians of Honor

Bruce betts portrait hq library

Bruce Betts

Chief Scientist / LightSail Program Manager for The Planetary Society

Sarah al ahmed headshot

Sarah Al-Ahmed

Planetary Radio Host and Producer for The Planetary Society

Steven Smith, an Education Specialist from NASA's Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (or STEM) Program, joins Planetary Radio to share some of the unique opportunities available for students in the lead-up to humanity's return to the Moon. Then Bruce Betts, the chief scientist of The Planetary Society, pops in for What's Up and a new random space fact.

Artemis I launch
Artemis I launch The Artemis I mission launches on NASA's Space Launch System carrying the Orion Spacecraft.Image: NASA/Bill Ingalls
First Nations launch
First Nations launch Students from Tribal Colleges, Universities, and Native American-serving institutions showcase their engineering prowess in the NASA First Nations Launch competition. Guided by the Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium, these young rocketeers design, build, and launch high-powered rockets.Image: Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium / NASA
NASA’s Micro-G Neutral Buoyancy Experiment Design Teams
NASA’s Micro-G Neutral Buoyancy Experiment Design Teams Undergraduate students from the Micro-g NExT program collaborate in the NASA Johnson Space Center's Neutral Buoyancy Lab, designing and testing tools for Artemis missions. In this simulated microgravity environment, professional divers execute tests while the students guide from the Test Conductor Room.Image: NASA
Lunabotics challenge
Lunabotics challenge University of Portland students meticulously prepared their innovative robot miner for the NASA Lunabotics competition. Their design, aimed at supporting Artemis mission goals, was tested in the mining arena on May 26, 2022.Image: NASA / Ben Smegelsky


Sarah Al-Ahmed: NASA's STEM program looks to the moon, this week on Planetary Radio. I'm Sarah Al-Ahmed of The Planetary Society with more of the human adventure across our Solar System and beyond. Steven Smith, an education specialist from NASA's Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics or STEM program, joins us this week to share some of the amazing opportunities available to students. If you're a student who wants to get involved in humanities' return to the moon, now is your time to shine. Then, Bruce Betts, the chief scientist of The Planetary Society, pops in for what's up and a new random space fact. If you love Planetary Radio and want to stay informed about the latest space discoveries, make sure you hit that subscribe button on your favorite podcasting platform. By subscribing, you'll never miss an episode filled with new and awe-inspiring ways to know the cosmos and our place within it. Last September at the 2023 NASA Innovative Advanced Concept Symposium in Houston, Texas USA, I connected with two inspiring members of NASA's STEM outreach program, Leslie Woodward and today's guest, Steven Smith. I'm always looking for new resources to share space exploration with students. My mother is a retired teacher and I spent years leading children's field trips at my local observatory. I've seen the power of STEM outreach on students firsthand, and as I learned more about the new opportunities that are available to students through NASA's STEM program, I knew that I had to share them with everyone that listens to Planetary Radio. This week, March, the first anniversary of NASA's Artemis I missions launch on November 16th, 2022. It launched from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, USA. The Artemis program is gearing up to return humans to the moon for the first time in half a century. And NASA's STEM program is going hand in hand with Artemis, offering a variety of challenges for students. These include opportunities to work on everything from the new flagpoles on the moon to the Micro-g neutral buoyancy experiment design teams or Micro-g NExT. This program allows undergraduate students to test their projects in the same neutral buoyancy lab or giant swimming pool that's used by astronauts for training at the Johnson Space Center. Our guest today, Steven Smith, is an education specialist for NASA's STEM program with a long history of education and outreach to students. He's here to share some of the opportunities that the program offers to students in the United States and worldwide. Hi, Steven. It's great to see you again.

Steven Smith: Hi. Thanks. Nice to see you as well.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Happy STEM Day, we're recording this on November 8th, which is National STEM Day in the United States, so perfect timing.

Steven Smith: Hey, look, when you do my job, every day is STEM day.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: It's so true though. I mean that's kind of what we deal in, just inspiring people through teaching them more about engineering, mathematics, technology and science, which is what STEM is all about.

Steven Smith: Absolutely.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: And of course, I should divulge that we met each other in person at this year's 2023 NASA Innovative Advanced Concept symposium. And upon meeting you, I noticed the bow tie, and anytime I see someone in a bow tie, I immediately want to know them better. So when I ran into you, you were at a table with Leslie Woodward, another wonderful person. You're handing out packets to try to draw more attention to NASA's STEM programs. And I always knew that these programs existed in the back of my mind, but I'd never really delved into them to learn what opportunities were there. So I'm really glad I get a chance to not only talk to you, to learn from myself, but to share these opportunities with others.

Steven Smith: Absolutely, and the breadth and depth of STEM engagement type things that we have are ridiculous. Of course, they're all free. So coming from a background, working in public education in high poverty areas, I know how important that is, that teachers are already paying so much out of pocket for enrichment for their students, and these are free, sort of. I mean, everyone pays for them, every April 15th. Thank you for paying your taxes, but we don't double charge for them. So you've already paid for them. They're here for you, so you might as well use them. It's all the way from K to 16. And then of course when you include internships now, that's also graduate students. So we have something for everyone.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: So your role within this program has changed a lot over the years. What is your role currently?

Steven Smith: So currently I'm an education specialist with what we call our mega task, which sounds so cool.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Mega task.

Steven Smith: So we rolled all of our next gen STEM tasks into one organization. So that includes, and I'm on four different teams within that organization. So right now, I'm on the student engagement team, which is exciting and fun, because I get to play with the littles and deal with students and all that fun stuff. I'm also on the educator professional development team, which works well for me. I did that early in my career and I was in the classroom for 20 years as an educator myself. And then, I'm on a team for a really cool thing that we have called SPARX. It's S-P-A-R-X, SPARX, which is an acronym for stuff ... Sorry. NASA has so many acronyms, and this-

Sarah Al-Ahmed: It's so true. I once saw someone create a code where you could just put in the words you wanted, it would spit out an acronym and my gosh, we're so heavy in them.

Steven Smith: And we get creative with it a little bit, because it's not always like first letter, first letter, first letter. Sometimes it's like first letter, third letter to make it spell something cool. SPARX is a really cool tool that we have for educators who haven't really done a lot of engagement type things with NASA, with those organizations. It's kind of an entry level way to get into further NASA challenges and things like that. They're grade band specific and a lot of great things like we have a SPARX 101, where you can just go onto a webinar and listen to us, introduce how to do this. It really is a low bar, easy way to get into working with NASA, doing some NASA stuff, learning about NASA resources. And then, I'm also on a bigger, broader team. We broke up our work into big broad topics. We have Aeronaut X, which is our airplanes obviously, because we're still in airplanes. That's the first A and NASA. Then, Solar System and Beyond really works and thinks about the wonderful work being done by James Webb Space Telescope and our work, thinking about Mars and thinking about the broader planets going out. Then, we have Moon, which is really focused on our Artemis missions, which are the missions going back to the moon, which is happening soon. We are sending human beings to orbit the moon for the first time since 1972. That team has been selected. They're all incredible, and that is going to launch towards the end probably of 2024. Getting ready for putting boots on the ground on the moon again in 2025, with the first woman and first person of color walking on the surface of the moon. Amazing.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: It's going to be so amazing.

Steven Smith: I know.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I can't even imagine how many people that's going to inspire.

Steven Smith: We hope, and that's big part of the point. Then, also I'm on the Earth Team because NASA does a lot of Earth science. We have a lot of Earth facing satellites, and it turns out we live here. So we want to help with that science as well. So I'm on the Earth team as well.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I noticed too that a lot of people that work within the STEM program are also affiliated with a program called Guardians of Honor. What does that mean?

Steven Smith: So most of the people who work at NASA by number are contractors of some sort or on a collaborative agreement or something like that. And then there's a core group of civil servants who actually work directly for the federal government for NASA. So Guardians of Honor is the organization that holds the contract for what we call STEM engagement or what you may think of as just education. They hold our contract for that and then subcontract out for the pieces and parts of that as we go. So I actually technically work for Guardians of Honor.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: That's really cool that there's an organization for that because everyone I've met that's affiliated with that has just the coolest jobs.

Steven Smith: We kind of do it. Really, yeah, it's ridiculous. I have to pinch myself regularly. I'll tell you, getting to work for NASA is as cool as you think.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Same as The Planetary Society. I feel like every time I wake up ... I've been working at The Planetary Society for three years and I still feel like one of these days it's all going to be a dream.

Steven Smith: Yeah, Imposter Syndrome is a real thing. It absolutely is. My favorite time to be on the center is actually at night because during the day, maybe I'm part of a tour group, maybe I'm whatever, but at night, there's no reason for you to be there other than you belong. So that's a thing. I walk at night and the security guy waves at me. I'm like, that's right. I belong here.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I belong here, but I think that's also what's kind of magical about these STEM programs. I know as a kid, I always felt like this was something that I was passionate about, but I never knew whether or not I was going to belong in that field or whether or not I was going to be accepted. Even now as an adult, those feelings hang with me, but if we can provide opportunities to younger people to make them feel like this is yours, you belong here, that could completely change the way that they look at their future and themselves.

Steven Smith: Absolutely, and a huge part of our work is that. For me, my first time on the NASA Center, I was genuinely like, I found my people because all as nerdy as I am, they're all as excited about this stuff as I am. Also, for the groups that have historically been left out of the conversation around STEM and around these amazing things and have had to watch it from afar. A big part of my job, a big part of our job with Guardians of Honor with NASA is to show people that this is for you. We have a huge push trying to make sure that young women and girls see and know that about themselves. I was just doing a conference in Kansas City with my good friend and colleague, Dr. Jennifer Williams. And when you work with middle elementary school kids, it amazes me that everyone in STEM isn't just a woman because when you go to the tables full of girls, they are on this stuff. They're excited about it, they're great at it. They're following the directions, they're innovating, they're asking the like, "Well, what if I do this questions?" And the boys, you're like, "Don't put that in your nose. Why are you doing it?" It's just a whole different thing. Then, somewhere just post middle school, high school, there's a switch. There's just something that happens where young women are convinced that STEM is not for them. And we are really trying to fight that, and one of the reasons our Artemis program is named what it is, it's named after a goddess in particular, and we're putting that first woman on the moon. And we have this wonderful graphic novel called First Woman, which please check that out. It's amazing. We just came out with volume two. That's wonderful.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I didn't know volume two was out. I'll have to get that.

Steven Smith: Yeah, and it's just as good as the first one. We even have a whole camp experience around that first woman graphic novel. So really trying to get these young women and focusing on representation and all of these things, and I'll tell you here at NASA too, most of my colleagues and almost all of my bosses or all amazing women, but also with minorities, the program that I was working on when I met you as Micro-g NExT, and we were doing a hard push to get HBCUs, Historically Black Colleges and Universities to participate, to send in proposals. It's that same thing that you're trying to convince people this is for you and at an institutional level in some ways, to try to get those colleges on board, that this is for your students. This is something that you should be a part of, and we're combining that hopefully with representation. If you look at our astronauts who are doing Artemis II. Victor Glover, African-American male and also the most charming human being on the planet, it's hilarious. Then, Christina Cook, just giving that good representation, and if you look at our Artemis astronauts across the board, they look like us as a people, as a country with a wonderful mix of every ethnicity and gender. You name it. However you define yourself, there's somebody there who looks like you and yet is somehow cooler than you because they're astronaut.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: It's so true. Anytime I meet an astronaut, I'm like, you're just too cool for me. Really though, we need everyone's perspectives. It's not just about pushing for diversity for diversity's sake. The more perspectives, the more backgrounds we bring into this, the better we do in our space programs. So this is really a key thing to pursue.

Steven Smith: We talk a lot about astronauts of course, because NASA astronauts, that's what you think of. NASA is so much more than that. I mean, I was a classroom teacher for 20 years and I've been at NASA for seven years. We have graphic artists. We have people who were video game designers that are now creating simulations for our astronauts to learn how to be in space. We have accountants. We have photographers. Whatever your jam is, we have that here at NASA, and you can come and be a part of this amazing work and be a part of space exploration, a part of this next step.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: You were mentioning earlier the strategic choice to name the Artemis program after a goddess, and it brought up this memory I have from a few years ago. I was at a Yuri's Night and there was this father with two little children, a little girl and a little boy. The little boy was wearing a jacket that was covered in Apollo patches and the little girl was wearing a jacket that didn't have any patches on it yet, but matched. I asked him, why doesn't she have any patches yet? He's like, "Well, the Artemis program is only just starting. We haven't gotten her patches yet," but one of these days she's going to have a jacket full of those patches too. The look of joy on this little girl's face and her and her brother just high-fiving. It was such a magical moment.

Steven Smith: Yeah, that's awesome and like you said, that's a big part of this because if you look at the representation from years past, it's been a little dodgy. With the shuttle program so much better, so many firsts, all that sort of stuff. Artemis is a real specific drive. This is for everyone. We're going with international partners so that this isn't just the United States. We're going with private and public partnerships. So a lot more commercial organizations are a part of this as well. Then, just the representation of who is doing this is there ... and the access that people are going to have. It's not going to be a grainy black and white TV that everybody's crowded around. This is going to be an HD and it's going to be incredible, and we're all going to be a part of it. Then for NASA, I sort of think of myself in the investment wing of NASA. So the point of the Artemis missions is to learn how to go on to Mars. And that foot that leaves the first footprint on Mars is not attached to a person who works for NASA or one of our contractors or even the planetary society. It's attached to a kid. It's attached maybe to that little girl waiting for her patches. So my job with NASA, the job of the engagement wing of NASA is to find that foot and to make sure that they have the opportunities to be inspired, to be excited, to get the STEM background, to get the critical thinking background that they're going to need to make that trip in the late 2030s, early 2040s.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: During your years working on this program, have you had any moments where you've seen it really make a big impact on the people that you're working with?

Steven Smith: My gosh. Yes. So I have the great pleasure of getting to do a lot of public engagement events. So I get to go out and be the face. I kind of get to be the Bill Knight of NASA, along the way. I have bow tie and we'll travel. So I get to go to these events and see these young kids discovering this stuff and see them in my favorite part of all of it. I do a long-term project with a friend of mine, Aaron Mauer, who works in Iowa with their regional organization. He and I do this project together every year where we work with kids on this idea of survival. So we start in the past and they do a whole thing on Ancient Egypt and how they survived in the desert and the technologies and stuff they created for that. Then we do one for present, which brings in that soccer team from ... is it Thailand, that was like trapped in the cave and had to survive for the couple of days or something. They talk about that and he's brought in the author of the book about that in the past. Then, we do future, and that's where I come in, where we talk about surviving on other planetary bodies like the moon through our Artemis missions and eventually Mars. I work with these kids for months, coming up with an initial idea, working through prototypes, and then eventually creating a prototype something model that we then talk about. The best part of that is helping them understand the importance of failure. That failure isn't something to be afraid of. It's not something to be avoided, it's something to be embraced, and we talk about learning to fail epically, because it's in those failures that creativity and innovation and those sorts of things happened. So without the tragedy of Apollo one, Apollo's 11 on would not have been the success that they were because we learned so much from that. So while of course, you want to be safe and you don't want those kinds of tragedies, if you are not doing something that you might fail at, who cares? Because then you're only doing the easy thing that everybody could do. So we push them to try something new, to try something that just sounds ridiculous. When they fail, okay, bring that around. What did we learn? Maybe restart and to a student in that project, every single one of them, when they're asked the thing that was the most impactful for them, it's that. It was that moment that they learned from their failure and pushed past it, and they're so much prouder of themselves. So I think with NASA, that's one of the things that we bring to bear on that, is we work on that edge where things can just go horribly wrong, but that's where innovation and creativity and all of that stuff happened and seeing those moments in the kids and being able to bring them that moment and to push them to that moment, it's just incredible. It's second to none, and I'm so lucky that this was my job.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I wish someone had tried to impart that lesson upon me as a child, because I think ... one of the things that I, myself and a lot of my friends struggled with was this idea that you can't be a scientist unless you get it right the first time, unless you're perfect, but you're going to get it wrong. You're going to struggle. Science, mathematics, engineering, these are hard subjects, necessarily you're not going to get right the first time. And that's part of the beauty of it, but it was hard to struggle through.

Steven Smith: Yes, and our schools today are teaching that fear of failure. You have to pass every test. You have to get this ... any person who's ever done any experiment, in experiments, the most likely outcome is your null hypothesis. So you have your hypothesis, this is what I think is going to happen, but the most likely thing that's going to happen is anything but that, pretty much. So in real science, in real innovation, failure is a huge part of that. So yeah, getting to impart that, getting to watch kids go through that and run into the issue and it didn't work, and how do I figure my way around it? And then that moment of aha, discovery, it's just ah, it's good stuff.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: What are some of your favorite projects that you've gotten to work on with people over the years?

Steven Smith: I really love that project I'm working with my friend Aaron. That's so much fun because it's such a long-term project and I get to be a part of all of it. I also have gotten to ... we have an internal project that's now called Spark. Previously, it was our hackathon. So people from other areas would come to a central place and like, "Hey, we're working on these issues and having a little problem. Let's brainstorm this. Let's crowdsource this." So I actually got to design a chair that's going to the moon. So something that was in my brain will be under an astronaut's butt. So I'm very excited about that. Then, just getting to go out and work in areas like, I got to spend a week going between the Hopi, Zuni and Navajo reservations in Northern New Mexico and seeing those kids understand that the traditional ways of living in the desert and the things that their families have done for thousands of years are things that we're thinking about for surviving on the moon and on Mars and in long-term spacecraft. The validation that that brings is really pretty incredible. Getting to work in the valley in Texas, which is what we call the south south part of Texas, and I got to be in front of 5,000 teachers in an arena with me on the Jumbotron on my birthday. That was incredible. It's things like that for me, getting to go out and make those real connections and work with an educator who is kind of beaten down. Kind of tired and then, help re-inspire the teacher and knowing that a teacher is going to reach out and then inspire their kids because they're excited about something I said, and it's stupid that they pay me to do this, although please keep paying me to do this. If you're listening to NASA, thank you.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Just because you're passionate doesn't mean you don't got to eat.

Steven Smith: That's right.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I love that you bring up that you got to go to these reservations, the Native American reservations to go share this because one of the programs ... I've been looking through a lot of the STEM programs, particularly within the Artemis Challenges, and there was this beautiful one about a First Nations launch program, and I spent a little time actually on a Navajo reservation. There's some Native American blood in my family, so I'd love to hear more about that program and all of the other ones. I mean, honestly, we could talk for hours.

Steven Smith: Yeah, yeah, yeah, no. So the First Nations launch is just what it sounds like. So we have tribal colleges and universities all over the country, and this is a program specific to them, to really encourage this, I work with a group that actually works in Canada called Stardust, and their specific mission is reaching into First Nations in Canada and in these communities that are heavy logging or heavy mining where you get this sort of generational poverty areas and showing them like, "Hey, aerospace is here, and something that you could be a part of." And then we have a whole wing called MAIANSE. It's M-A-I-A-N-S-E, again, an acronym for a bunch of words to sound cool. That is an entire program at NASA focused just on Native American and Alaska natives and all of the needs and working on the reservations and bringing things to them and celebrating their traditional ways as part of what we're doing because space is universal, pun intended. Every culture has their stories about the moon, about the stars, about the constellations, and it's something that we, as a people, have done throughout all of history. Then, we also get this ... the astronauts or anybody who's been to space comes back with this global perspective, having seen Earth from a different perspective like that. It's much less us and them and you can't really see those borders and all that sort of stuff. And they get this very, "We the people of Earth," kind of feeling when they come back. Native Americans have had that and it's part of their culture forever. Most Native American names for their particular tribe translate to the people. Who are we? We're the people, duh. So we embrace that and we really encourage that, and I'm getting to on January 25th of the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, they're doing a STEM day and they do that every year and it's just a huge celebration bringing in their kids, and I think they bring something like a thousand kids on that day through in two big sections, and I get to be a part of that as well.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: We'll be right back with the rest of my interview with Steven Smith after this short break.

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Sarah Al-Ahmed: You mentioned earlier that that specific program is catered toward undergrad and graduate students in college. So this program covers everything from kindergarten all the way up to people that are just beginning to start their careers.

Steven Smith: Yes.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: How do these programs vary by age group?

Steven Smith: It's sort of a difference in degree, not kind, sort of thing. So the programs and projects we have for the elementary three through five students is really not vastly different than what we have through nine through 12, but it has more variables or less variables or a little deeper dive, or it's a little bit more of a like, here's the original thing, kind of build from that versus start from scratch kind of thing. So a lot of the things that we create with our educator guides with, we have fully written activities, and by the way, everything that we have for education type resources are standards aligned with the next generation science standards and the common core curriculum. We do that because we're national, and while each state may have its own standards, those standards are also based on the federal standards. So we just went to the root, but those are all similar across the board, but what's expected of the student is a little different. So with the younger kids, we maybe give them a little more information at the start and ask them to figure out one or two pieces, whereas my nine full 12 students, it's here's the blank slate, here's your variables, go, kind of thing. Then, with the college students, it's a lot more real world and that, they actually create a product that we may use here at NASA. The program that I was working on, Micro-g NExT, we have our engineers come to us with challenges. We put those challenges together, then put them out to students. This year we have one called Spotter where they're going to code and do the electronical engineering for a device that will find the Orion spacecraft, like when it's in high ocean conditions, that kind of thing. Then, we have one where they're developing more of a mechanical engineering side, where they're developing a flagpole anchor. You may remember that one of our Apollo flags as the Apollo lander took off, got blown over from the exhaust. Well, we want to make sure that doesn't happen again. That's kind of a bad video. So we have them designing that, and then also a map holder and there's a tool holder. And the students will create actual prototypes that will be tested in our neutral buoyancy lab, which you may or may not know, is a huge swimming pool where we train astronauts how to do space walks. So we'll actually ... in the testing facility where we test these things, they'll build a prototype, bring it in there, work on it and then, our engineers will take pieces and parts of that. Some of the things that students designed will be on the moon as part of Artemis. We have other programs like SUITS, which is building a heads-up display for the astronauts when they do their space walks and so many other ... Kibo, they build and work with robots in the Japanese section. Just so many opportunities and challenges, again, all the way from kindergarten where we have books for them to read that have challenges in them. Some of my favorites of those were written by people here called the Astro-Not-Yets. So not just astronauts but Astro-Not-Yets where they read a story about the students doing a little experiment, but then that experiment is in the book for the teachers. And so your students can do the experiment that they just read about the students in the book doing kind of thing. And then, our Globe Challenges, we have this whole Earth science-based section where your students can do real hands-on science. And they're working with our NASA scientist as well as scientists from NOAA and the National Science Foundation, NSF.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: NSF.

Steven Smith: They're doing real science. Again, it's a difference in degrees and how much from ... did you start from scratch or did you jump onto somebody else's, and that sort of thing. The people who work in my field, we're all educators, so we've all been there. We've all been where you are kind of thing as educators and parents and all of that out there looking for stuff for your kids. Let me say too, if you're just a parent and you want extra stuff for your kids, you want some things for your kids to do, or God forbid we end up in another shutdown lockdown like we were during the pandemic, these are all online. You can go to and all of those things and all those resources are broken up by grade level and you can just look across and see what you can do with your students.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: You bring up a great point too, which is that we've just been through a huge upheaval across the world with the COVID era. How did that impact the program?

Steven Smith: Really, it changed a lot, just like it did with everybody. We were stuck in our houses just like everybody else was. So we really doubled down on that though, and created resources that you could use at home. So we have a lot of activities, a lot of hands-on STEM engagement stuff that you can do with things that you just find around your house. And again, that's all on, broken out by grade band, but they're right there for you. We created videos to kind of walk you through how to do these things. We really kind of doubled down on that and then, really increased our webinar offerings and things like that so you could participate from home. Now, that we're out of that a little bit, it changed us as a nation. It changed all of us to help us understand how this kind of technology works. Now, we're all on teams and Zoom and working part-time from home is kind of a normal thing to do now. So we still have those resources available and we have whole sections where you can just put your kids on it. If you go to, there's a whole section that's just for kids and students and they can just explore there. Then, my favorite part of all of that is our search engine, the little search bar up there. You type in one word from anything you're interested in, relating to STEM to space, to whatever and you're going to get 400 different things that pop up that are free NASA resources that you can just play with.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: That's so fun. As the wacky space ante, I love having all of these resources, because it means I can share them with all the little people in my life.

Steven Smith: There you go. Absolutely.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Am I remembering correctly that the Micro-g NExT program just had a 10-year anniversary? Is that true?

Steven Smith: This year. This year is 10 year and then, we have the HERC challenge, which is the Human Exploration Rover Challenge. I remembered that one. That is a middle and high school international event where students are creating a human powered vehicle to go through an obstacle course that's on its 30th year.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Wow.

Steven Smith: So we've been doing this a minute.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: That's interesting too. NASA is a United States space agency or aerospace agency, but we have so many partners around the world and there are kids and people in college all across this planet that want to get involved in these things. Do you have any advice for people in other countries who want to get involved in these programs?

Steven Smith: Absolutely. So many other countries are now gearing up their own space agencies, so the Indian Space Agency just successfully landed on the moon for the first time.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Chandrayaan-3. It was so cool.

Steven Smith: Incredible. Up until that point, the United States was the only one to do it successfully. So these partners are coming in. So, their space agencies in their home countries, so the European Space Agency is a huge partner of ours, the Canadian Space Agency, huge partner of ours, JAXA, which is a Japanese Space Agency, Roscosmos. These are all people who regularly send astronauts to the Space Station on our missions are part of the Artemis, like all of us. So if you're an international person, find out what the space agency where you are is and what they've got going on. Now, okay, let's be honest, they're not going to be as cool as NASA. We are the cool ones. I get it. I get it. So we actually do have internships for international students. So if you go to ... and by the way, all of these things I'm throwing out, if you can't remember the exact URL, just Google, NASA and the thing you're interested in, were kind of a big deal, we come to the top.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: To make it easier for everyone, I'm going to take these links and put them on the webpage for this episode of Planetary Radio, so you can just go click them.

Steven Smith: Perfect. I had a feeling you might. So is our internship's website, and we do have ... for US students, we do have some for high school, there's not a lot. It is mostly for graduate undergraduate students. The graduate students, the specific program is called Pathways, and we call it that because those are pathways to actual jobs. So you're kind of interviewing for your job while you're doing the job, sort of thing. Then for international students, we actually do have international partnerships and international internships through that you can go and look at, as well. Then with our engagement opportunities ... so if you're a young person not in college yet and just want to involve yourself in some of our webinars or go on to and look at our great resources there, those are all ... if you have the interwebs, you have access to that. There's not a gate that you have to go through and show your green card or birth certificate or anything like that. So those are all available to you. Now, some of the challenges like Micro-g NExT, if the culminating event for that challenge is coming onto a center, you do have to be a US citizen for that, or a legal permanent resident I think is the term for them. Other than that, you can participate. You can be a part of these things that are happening, but I would say the first step though is check in your local area with your local space agency, whatever that is, because they're going to need new young, amazing people as well to get them started. Then also, in the private industry, we've got SpaceX and Boeing and Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic and all of these others that are just the pioneers in a newly developing private space economy. I fully believe within the lifetime of people listening to this podcast, that there's going to be a time where you have to make a genuine decision whether you go to Disney in Orlando, Disney in California or Disney in orbit. That is all happening and it's all happening soon.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Can you imagine the Star Wars section of Disney in space?

Steven Smith: Yes. As a matter of fact, I can-

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I want to go to there.

Steven Smith: Yes. Now for me, that's not really going to be my bag, because I would just be nauseous the whole time. I know. I've got one good rollercoaster in me a day, that's it. And so I don't know if that's in my future, but definitely my kids for sure.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: There are so many of these projects that I want to learn more about, particularly within the Artemis Challenges or the Artemis student challenges. This is just a really cool moment for people to get involved in what is going to be our next human travel to the moon. You already brought up a few of them, but one that I was really interested in was the spacesuit user interface technology thing.

Steven Smith: Yes.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: It's probably because I've been doing a lot of VR and augmented reality around my house, it's not an uncommon thing for one of us to be wearing an Oculus while doing dishes. I know that's super strange, but it feels like a really cool new way to overlay over our reality. And if we're going to have some cool new Iron Man-esque display in our spacesuits, I think these young people are going to be up for it.

Steven Smith: I agree, and we've even integrated that. If you read our first woman graphic novel throughout, there are QR codes and things where you go to and scan and there's a VR and AR component to the novel. I'm not only sending you to other resources, but to actual virtual reality experiences just for that novel, and if you have an Oculus, we have a ton of things that you can download, different tours and things of NASA facilities and launches and the neutral buoyancy lab that you can watch on your Oculus. I will suggest though, if you're going to watch something like that, sit down, while you're doing it because the chances of you just following it all the way and then following up, pretty high. It's pretty common that that happens. SUITS which is the one you were talking about, the Student User Interface, which by the way, I named it.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Nice. Now you need an offshoot section called TIES that goes-

Steven Smith: Yes, SUITS and TIES. I love it. My friend Brandon Hargis was tasked with that and he and I kind of brainstormed and the two of us came up with the name and he was the original manager for that and led it through and made it what it is, but they're group now, it's incredible as well, and the partnerships in that are what make me excited because the teams they put together for that aren't just coders. It's not just the electrical engineer side, but they often will have people from public affairs backgrounds or people from those kinds of things. Almost all of our challenges have an outreach component where we're looking for you to get out into your community, tell other people about it. Get kids excited about what you're doing, that kind of thing. So, they would bring in people from other majors that were non STEM related necessarily and have them partner in that, which is, by the way, the same thing that NASA does. We have our public affairs people. We have our student engagement, people like myself, they're all part of the story as well. Even in these challenges, you can do that. You can put together these integrated teams and then, a lot of the teams on SUITS and Micro-g NExT and all those, they will partner with students from other schools. So, you have these really cool multi-school branch out groups that come together to answer this question. The exciting thing about that is that most of these things aren't competitions. So you're not going to get a Kewpie doll at the end of the road. These are collaborations. It's about solving the problems. It's about coming up with the best answer and however, you need to do that and whomever you need to partner with to make that happen. So, that really fosters that idea of collaboration versus competition, which I think if we think about that in a political sense, if we think about that in an economic sense, there's a lot of crossover where getting young people to think collaboratively and get away from this idea of zero-sum games and I only win if you lose. I think that gives us benefits way out into the future.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I've even seen that kind of make a big impact in my community, in the astrophysics community over the last few years. When I was doing my research, there was a lot of this competition between research groups and it still exists. They're all grappling for grant funding, but then people started sharing their algorithms and other things online, and just the speed with which innovation and new discoveries is being made because people are now collaborating in a whole new way, in a less competitive way, is absolutely mind-boggling.

Steven Smith: Absolutely true. If you look at the photograph, the first photograph that we were able to successfully get of the Black Hole, only happened because of that huge collaboration between scientific partners and schools all over the world, sharing their data, sharing their algorithms, and working together to create that thing that just changed everything.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: The Event Horizon Telescope is so mind-blowing. Really though, I mean there are so many things now that we can finally accomplish because of this interconnectivity because we can place telescopes all around the world or collaborate together to take more nations into space, and we're going to need a lot more people, a lot more kids, and a lot more students to get involved in order to continue these programs because our dreams are big and we're going to need people to help make them real.

Steven Smith: Yes, and we need organizations like NASA, like The Planetary Society and many others, and most of these new commercial companies like Blue Origin and SpaceX are integrating in student engagement. Blue Origin does a cool thing where you can send a postcard up to space and then, it comes back to you, having been in space-

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Yeah, we actually partner with them on that sometimes, so if anybody ever sees one of our booths at any space event, we'll probably have space postcards that you can send a space and get them back to your home, which is-

Steven Smith: Very good. Yeah.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: It's so fun seeing the look on kids' faces when they get to send a piece of their own artwork to space.

Steven Smith: Absolutely, and we're investing. We're investing in ourselves. You're investing in your company, you're investing in all of us as a people by doing these kind of outreach things, and it really does take all of us to make this work.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: As part of the Micro-g NExT program, you're not only doing things on the lunar surface, but you're also trying to think about the Orion's crew safety upon returning. I know you mentioned a little bit that one program to try to create a thing that will autonomously track the Orion capsule, but are there other programs within that to help bring our astronauts home safely?

Steven Smith: Absolutely. Yeah. We have a whole wing for that. Cody Kelly is the Micro-g NExT subject matter expert. He's the one working with us on that. So last year we had an autonomous vehicle that would actually search out and find a beacon that would be on the astronauts if they were in trouble kind of thing. Then, this year, that program is called Spotter that we're doing with Micro-g NExT, where they're creating the autonomous tracking device to find the Orion when it's in ... because apparently even being international orange and huge, it can get a little tricky to find these things out on the open ocean. So yes, and our amazing search and rescue folks, work with the Coast Guard and the Navy out there to make sure that we find our people and bring them back. That's a huge part of our mission. Anytime we talk about sending people, there's always that second half. We want to bring them back safely. So yes, they're a part of Micro-g NExT and several other of our organizations as well, getting students involved, but then the work that they do is just ... it's second to none. That's really important to work with the astronauts.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Are there any other big branches of the STEM program that you want to highlight? Because I feel like we could literally talk about this all day and never hit the bottom of these projects.

Steven Smith: Yeah, so like I said before, just with our engagement section, our STEM engagement section, we have all the challenges that we've talked about. So we have MITTIC, M-I-T-T-I-C, which is sort of like a shark tank kind of thing. We call it Space Tank. It's for a minority serving university specifically, and they take existing NASA technology and create new products that would help their community and then pitch them to our panel here on the center, which is pretty cool. Micro-g NExT, we've talked about SUITS, we've talked about ... Kibo is a collaboration with the Japanese space agency, JAXA and it's a robotics focused for young people to code for the robots to do different cool things. And that's kind of a competition where the lead ones will actually get to go to Japan and do work there. That's pretty cool.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Phugoid.

Steven Smith: I know, right? We have the app development challenge, which is for middle and high school students, and this year, they're creating visualization data packets for helping us decide where on the South Pole exactly to land. So it's taking all of the, where's the water, what's the topography, all those things, and creating a visualization for us to use to help decide where to land. That's just for middle and high school students and the stuff that they come up with is ridiculous, but all of those challenges are kind of together doing their thing. And then while they're doing that, we've got our student engagement team that's out there talking to kids and getting them excited. We have our educator professional development team that's out there with the teachers and getting them excited and kind of doing the train the trainer sort of thing with them, SPARX we have for all those teams that are a little nervous about maybe jumping into an app development challenge or maybe nervous about some of that, good entry level to get you in there and just doing some cool NASA stuff. Then, we have our big teams with the aerospace getting ready to create a supersonic plane that will fly faster than the speed of sound without a sonic boom. It only has a sonic ... so it'll be able to fly over land without breaking the law. So that technology will maybe roll into someday getting you from California out here to hang out with me in Houston in like 45 minutes instead of the four hours that it takes to do it.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I'm still here for that.

Steven Smith: Right. Our Earth Team doing amazing things, still working with the ISS and with Earth science, climate science. We have something really cool with that if your organization is interested in having a moon tree. So we actually flew seeds to space, brought those seeds back and have created seedlings and trees in your organization, can apply to get one of these seedlings, and you can grow a tree that's been to the moon.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: That's so cool.

Steven Smith: It is so cool.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I have to bring it up with Bill Nye, we'll get one of those trees.

Steven Smith: You should ought to and grow with a bow tie, of course. My good friend John Davis is the lead on that one. Then, just we have demonstrations, so we have really cool things. If you're teaching Newton's laws or if you're teaching communication or you're teaching whatever, we have videos done by the astronauts demonstrating those concepts in space for students, so it doesn't get cooler than that. Then we have down links. So if your school wants to talk to astronauts while they're in space, we have down links where you can sign up and have that happen. Then on Moon, that's all the Artemis stuff, the Artemis student challenges, all the things we've talked about. And then, Solar System and beyond is looking at the James Webb Space Telescope and the various cool things that we have coming back and that we're learning from that. So we are here doing it all, and wherever you are, there's probably a NASA Center close. There are 10 centers. It's not just Houston, they're where you are in California, there are three centers. We have JPL, Ames and Armstrong all right there together going up the coast. Then of course, us here in Houston, Johnson Space Center, the home of human space flight. We have astronauts, so we're the coolest, obviously. Mississippi has one, Alabama has one. Florida is where we launch everything from. We have headquarters in Washington DC, Goddard in Maryland, Langley in Virginia, and then way up there in Ohio. We even have one in Cleveland, which is the Glenn Research Center. So we are where you are, and again, whatever your jam is, you don't have to be an astronaut, you don't have to want to be an astronaut. You don't have to be an engineer. You just have to love space, be good at what you're doing and be excited about it, and we want you to come and hang out with us and have shenanigans and learn stuff. It's going to be great.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I'm so glad this program exists. Even just ... the few years ago that I was a child, I remember thinking that I wanted to do this, but I didn't know how to get involved or how to do anything beyond just reading about it and now, you can get yourself involved, actually do stuff that really matters, and imagine being one of those people that got to help put a flagpole on the moon, a next generation robot on the moon. Anything like that could change the arc of someone's life.

Steven Smith: It can, and there's some ways for you to keep up with that. So if you're an educator, even informal educator, which I would pull you in there, Sarah, you're an informal educator. We have something called NASA Connects, which is an online community for educators in the United States, and we have resources on there. We have groups that you can become a part of, whatever your jam is in there. We do special events just for in there, have the astronauts come in and talk every once in a while. That's a great collaborative community that you can just be a part of. If you're not sure how to get started in some of this other stuff, it's a good kind of entry level sort of thing. And then we also have NASA Express, so if you're interested in this kind of stuff, but again, don't know how to start sign up for NASA Express and you get emails every month that tell you here's all the webinars that are coming up, here's the challenges that are coming up. Here's the way to get involved with the stuff that's happening. We just had an eclipse that was an annular eclipse that went across the country and in April we have a full eclipse that's coming up. So there's going to be lots of events and lots of activities and lots of ways for you to get involved with that. And those are all going to be on Connects and NASA Express or just go again to and check out the amazing offerings that we have there as well.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: And now is a good time to become an Eclipse Ambassador.

Steven Smith: Exactly right. Go ahead and get your glasses early because they will sell out. If you try to go to Home Depot or one of those places on the day of, they're not going to be there. Believe me. I know. I did it for the annular eclipse.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Yeah, I always keep a bag of them. So when the annular eclipse was happening ... it was only a partial from here in California, but I felt like a superhero sailing out there. I gave eclipse glasses to everyone, just, "You get a pair and you get a pair."

Steven Smith: Like I said a senior offering.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Exactly and you get an eclipse glasses, everybody gets eclipse ... but really though, buy a bag full of them, you're going to be the superhero that everyone needs.

Steven Smith: 100%

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Well, thanks so much for joining me, Steven, and explaining all of this. I'm sure even just the few people that are listening to this right now are about to have their minds completely blown and potentially changed by these opportunities. So thanks for sharing this with us and for spending so much time trying to educate and inspire the next generation. It's going to make a huge difference.

Steven Smith: It is a great honor to get to do what I do.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Thanks, Steven.

Steven Smith: Thanks, Sarah.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: As Steven said, somewhere out there right now is a student who has no idea that they're going to be the first person on Mars. Let's do everything that we can to help them make that dream a reality. If you want to learn more about any of the opportunities mentioned in the show, you can find them on the page for this episode of Planetary Radio at or just straight up, email us at [email protected]. We'll get you the links you need. I should also mention that the day that this episode comes out, November 15th, 2023 is also the one-year anniversary of the launch of The Planetary Society's Kids Membership Program, the Planetary Academy. It's designed for kids ages five through nine who love space, want to learn more and want to help in our collective mission to advance space science and exploration. You can learn more about that at Now, let's check in with the chief scientist of The Planetary Society and a master of science education for kids, Bruce Betts. Hey Bruce.

Bruce Betts: Hey Sarah. How are you doing today?

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Doing good. Anytime I get to talk about all the ways that we can inspire people, especially children, to get involved in space exploration or learning more about space science, it always makes me really happy, because I know what a difference all of those programs and all of the adults who reached out to me as a kid really made. And I'm wondering, did you become interested in space as a kid or were you one of the people that found that passion later in life?

Bruce Betts: No, I found it very early. So I was interested from a few years of age. A couple of significant things. One was watching from a distance, but the final launch of Apollo to the moon, Apollo 17 from a hotel in Florida. And that was profound and then, I had a second third cousin who worked at JPL and it was the days before the internet. So he would send me packages of the press release photos of Viking and Voyager, and that's what got me really fired up. Pretty pictures. Still love them to this day. So those were kind of the two of the pivotal things. And then just books that taught me more about it and time travel to the future and using the internet and then traveling back. Huge.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Huge. One of our members, Gene Lewin, sent in a poem about Viking missions that I thought was really beautiful.

Bruce Betts: I would like to hear it.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Yeah, and it's cool because another person actually wrote me today saying that they wished more people knew about the Viking landers and their tests and search for life. So it was perfect, but here is Gene Lewin's poem about the Viking landers. "Off to Martian surfaces, a titan Centaur proved the way, with orbiters and landers to last for 90 days. Twin galactic long chips, Vikings 1 and 2, searching for the signs of life as the mission so ensued. Alas, nothing definitive though, if I were to decide when you see Vikings come ashore, it would be wise to hide. Instead of staying there on Mars, the Martians had a plan. They pulled up steaks and came to Earth and mingled among man." "The landers, when they both touched down, used a Dacron polyester shoot. The martians may have upcycled it, explaining those folks in leisure suits. You see, it was the 70s, and with fashion ebbs and flows, Martians were hiding in plain sight in those casual pastel clothes."

Bruce Betts: Nice.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: No, man. I am looking forward to a day when we can go back to Mars thoughtfully, carefully and do these experiments again, because what happened with those Viking landers, if you're out there listening and you don't know, experiments for life were very fascinating, very ... what is the word? They couldn't determine whether or not there was actually current life on Mars, extent life at the moment, but they did provide some really big mysteries that I want to go back and learn more about.

Bruce Betts: Okay. One instrument and a small set of people claim there was evidence for life, but there was plenty of evidence that it was a non-biological release.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Totally.

Bruce Betts: And the others were pretty negative. Yeah, it was a weird way to start Mars landed exploration to focus entirely on. We will send a mission that looks for life and looks for life and looks for life, which now, we've got a much more methodical way of surveying the planet, figuring out good places to look for evidence of past life, which is far more likely, particularly on the surface, because we've learned the surface is pretty nasty, not compared to my friend Venus, I'll talk about. I called Venus my friend before. I'm sorry, Mars. Anyway, yeah, there are ... it'll be nice and it'll be great if we ... if and when we get the samples back from the surface of Mars, which have been taken and are being taken by perseverance, because that'll allow us to go crazy in the Earth laboratories with much more advanced techniques.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Right, you think we're going to learn stuff from the moon samples and the OSIRIS REx rocks and all those things. My gosh, the things we could learn from those Martian samples, once we get them, hopefully we get them, and if anybody wants to support the Mars sample return mission, we have a petition going on, on our action center. So I'm going to link for that on this episode of Planetary Radio. That way, if you want to kick in your vote behind actually bringing those samples back from Mars, we'll make sure it gets to the right people who can hear that?

Bruce Betts: How about we travel to Venus? And I'll give you [inaudible 00:56:09].

Sarah Al-Ahmed: All right, let's go to Venus.

Bruce Betts: All right, Venus. Probably no. Sulfur dioxide clouds. That's what makes it so we can't see the surface. Pretty exotic, pretty wild, pretty nasty. People often picture, I think when they hear sulfur dioxide, acid rain that is coming down on the surface, but it actually ... the clouds are up tens of kilometers and then, it rains. Sulfuric acid evaporates around 300 degrees Celsius, which means you easily hit places where it evaporates and then, goes back to the clouds and recondenses. So there is a cyst cycle, but it never reaches the surface. So the surface is quite enjoyably pleasant. I mean, except for the crushing pressures and melting temperatures. Other than that, it's good. No acid rain. Yay.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Yeah. See, that actually explains a lot because I remember the first time I was looking through the Soviet Venera images of the surface of Venus, I remember thinking, but where are the pools of sulfuric acid? Because at the time, I was younger, I didn't know that the rain didn't reach the surface, and I kept thinking, why aren't there entire lakes of this stuff? That sounds horrifying, but there's some-

Bruce Betts: They're in my backyard.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Keep the dogs inside.

Bruce Betts: All right, everybody go out there to look up the night sky and think about fruit. Thank you, and goodnight.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: We've reached the end of this week's episode of Planetary Radio, but we'll be back next week with the latest Adventures of Planetary Radio's, creator Matt Kaplan, and a conversation with Nathaniel Kahn, the Oscar nominated director of Deep Sky, the new James Webb Space Telescope IMAX experience. You can help others discover the passion, beauty and joy of space, science and exploration by leaving your review and a rating on platforms like Apple Podcasts. Your feedback not only brightens our day, but also helps other curious minds find their place in space through Planetary Radio. You can also send us your space thoughts, questions and poetry at our email, at [email protected]. If you're a Planetary Society member, leave a comment in the Planetary Radio space in our member community app. Planetary Radio is produced by The Planetary Society in Pasadena, California and is made possible by our members who want to help shape a bright future for students everywhere. You can join us as we work together to explore the moon, Mars and beyond, at, Mark Hilverda and Rae Paoletta are our associate producers. Andrew Lucas is our audio editor, Josh Doyle composed our theme, which is arranged and performed by Pieter Schlosser. Until next week, Ad Astra.