Blazer selected as student astronaut

Dec. 29, 2003, midnight | By Renee Park | 17 years ago

For eight days during the first three months of the Mars Red Rover missions scheduled to land on the red planet in January, junior Abigail Fraeman will be working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

Fraeman, a student in the Magnet, was selected in September as one of 16 winners of the Planetary Society's Red Rover Goes to Mars Student Astronaut global competition. The Planetary Society, the largest public non-profit space program in the nation, is sending Fraeman on an all-expenses paid trip to JPL, which is contracted by NASA, from Jan. 15 to 27. She and her assigned partner from Britain are expected to work during days 15 through 23 of the Spirit mission and the overlapping first three days of the Opportunity mission.

Fraeman's achievement is the result of a lengthy application process that began last school year involving an essay analyzing an image from the Viking lander, short answer questions and recommendations. More than 500 students applied worldwide; 60 finalists were named on June 27. Half of the chosen finalists were contacted for a conference call phone interview with the Mars exploration team, narrowing down the selection to the final sixteen winners.

Fraeman and the other winners will be updating daily Internet logs on their work, acting as the public's eyes and ears inside the control room. The student astronauts are expected to comment on the Science Operations Working Group meetings as experts determine the next site of exploration for the rovers.

The students will also be analyzing Mars Rover Exploration images and data gathered through the missions, placing markings on the rovers' sundials and attaching magnets onto the rovers to collect dust samples.

Currently, in preparation for their involvement in mission control, the student astronauts must study an average of two hours per week; including subjects ranging from the use of imaging analysis software to petrology, the study of rocks.

For Fraeman, winning the chance to be a student astronaut has been just one more step towards her longtime goal of being the first astronaut on Mars. She has imagined traveling to space since the fourth grade, when she was introduced to the view of a telescope. "The first time I saw Saturn," explained Fraeman, "I thought it was awesomely cool because of its rings. That was it. I was hooked."

Junior Grace Huang, a close friend of Fraeman's, attested to Fraeman's passion for the stars, describing how Fraeman enjoyed pointing out Mars to her whenever the two were outside at night.

Although Fraeman will be missing a week of exams to participate in the rover activities, Magnet Coordinator Eileen Steinkraus wholeheartedly supports Fraeman in her endeavors. "It's great that she has this opportunity," said Steinkraus. "Some of her dreams are coming true."

In the past Fraeman has been recognized for two astronomy Science Fair projects and obtained membership in the National Capital Astronomers, a non-profit astronomy affiliate of the Washington Academy of Sciences. "I just love astronomy. It's a gorgeous and beautiful science," she remarked. "The stars and planets and nebulas are ‘fantastionistic!'"

Fraeman added that she hopes to continue her work with the Mars rovers far after her participation in mission control is completed. She is investigating the possibility of joining an undergraduate research program at Cornell University this summer that is linked to the work being done at JPL.

Fraeman's family has encouraged her to pursue her ambitions, but they remain concerned, as her father, who works at the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University, is aware that an astronaut's path is fraught with hazards. "The rewards are great, and the contributions that [space exploration] makes are great," he explained. "But it's a dangerous business."

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Renee Park. Renee is a senior in the Magnet Program (finally!) and is psyched about a brand new year of Chips, Chips and more Chips! She's currently wondering why she took MathPhys with Silver Chips and how soon she'll die, but meanwhile, Renee's enjoying writing, reading, studying … More »

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