NASA optical physicist Ray Ohl seemed pleasantly surprised.
His opening question to the Report to the Nation delegates had been this: “Are any of you interested in a science or engineering or technical career?”
Immediately, 10 hands shot into the air.
“All right! That’s great to hear,” Ohl said. “Lots of careers in science will be hiring. In fact, there are NASA internships at every NASA facility.”
Facilities like Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, where NASA built the Hubble Space Telescope and its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope.
It is the 26th year that Goddard has hosted the Report to the Nation delegates. Each year, NASA scientists like Ohl give up a Saturday to drive into their place of work and host a group of Scouts and Venturers.
Each year, the Goddard visit demonstrates that the kind of hands-on STEM experiences young people get in Scouting could translate into exciting jobs at places like NASA.
And with the BSA’s new STEM Scouts program, that opportunity is available to more young people than ever before.
A passion for science
You could tell that Ohl, who serves as a den leader in his son’s Cub Scout pack, enjoys his job.
He talks about black holes the way a football fan might describe a game-winning catch. The enthusiasm level is high, and hand motions and sound effects are in full use.
Ohl’s black hole talk began with four or five delegates. As the conversation went on, even more were drawn into his orbit.
One of the Scouts who seemed especially interested was Daniel Yu, an Eagle Scout from Illinois who designed and built with his troop a project that was sent to the International Space Station.
As they walked past the giant vacuum chamber where NASA tests some of its space technology, Daniel asked Ohl to verify something he’d heard in his studies.
“In a vacuum, there’s no air resistance,” Daniel said. “You get rid of all forces except gravity. Is that why a bowling ball and a feather will fall at the same rate in a vacuum?”
“That’s right,” Ohl said. “Very good.”
(Skeptical, I had to see this for myself. Apparently it’s true.)
Discovering the future
At Goddard, the NASA team is working on a number of projects that could lead to a deeper understanding of our universe and the development of what Ohl called “Star Trek-like technology.”
Goddard’s primary hub for that research is a giant clean room where work can be completed in a sterile environment.
“This is the biggest clean room in the world,” Ohl said. Then a beat later, he added, “Actually, the Russians have one that’s bigger, but it’s not as clean.”
The delegates stood on the viewing platform, peering through glass at the massive white cube — a blank canvas for scientific breakthroughs.
Looked at another way, these young people might have been peering into their futures as NASA scientists.
As they departed Goddard, the delegates thanked Ohl for his time.
He told them to apply for a NASA internship, because he could see their boundless potential.
That’s the power of Scouting.
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Photos by Michael Roytek and Randy Piland