Graduating from space school
Costa Rican student Montse Cordero, second from right, graduates from United Space School, a summer program in Houston.
August 10th, 2012
03:49 PM ET

Graduating from space school

Editor's note: Montse Cordero is a 17-year-old student from Costa Rica participating in the Foundation for International Space Education's United Space School, a two-week summer program in Houston. She'll be blogging about her experiences in the program. Need to catch up? Check out her previous posts here.

It’s really weird to be writing a wrap-up post. It seems like just yesterday that I was writing about how I was getting ready to start space school, and I was feeling all nervous about meeting so many new people. Then again, when I think about everything I’ve learned since writing that post, it seems like it was ages ago. I think that all of the participants will agree that United Space School is some sort of time machine a very good kind!

Since my last post, lots of things have happened. We had our final presentations Saturday and had to be at the University of Houston-Clear Lake, wearing our uniforms one last time. We had all practiced our parts and were confident in our work, and we were extremely nervous but also eager to show it to the world.

Each presentation was divided in three main parts: the presentation, questions from the audience (who were, scarily enough, a bunch of rocket scientists and space professionals), and finally our team song. The song is a United Space School tradition; each team picks a popular song, writes new lyrics for it having to do with the mission and sings it at the end of the presentation.

The presentations started with the gold team (don’t call the members yellow, or they’ll be angry and might take your funding away). The team was in charge of mission control, budgets, space law and such. The members explained how everyone’s budget was split, where they got the money from, which teams had the most and why, what their mission control center would look like, and how they dealt with space law. Questions were asked and then came the song. As everyone clapped and they returned to their seats, it hit me: We were up next!

Maroon team, my team, was up. We covered the design of our rocket, how it worked, from where we would launch, our marketing strategies, emergency protocols and education opportunities (what I talked about). Everything seemed to go well. I’d forgotten what I had prepared to say, but I just decided to explain what I knew, and it went pretty well.

It was time for questions, the most nerve-wracking part. We got lots of questions. Most we knew the answers to, but there were a few things that we hadn’t even thought about. Then it was finally time for our song, and our rendition of a modified "Call Me Maybe" sounded pretty good in my opinion.

The presentations went on. The red team had a good idea on how it was getting to Mars, the green team had quite an interesting habitat, and the blue team had a full plan on how it was exploring the red planet. The questions were tough, and the songs amazing.

After the last one, Rob Alexander (executive director of the Foundation for International Space Education) said that officials knew they had grilled us pretty hard but they wanted us to know we had impressed them and he was going to recommend to the board we all graduate. Lots of cheering followed, and before we knew it, we were out of there.

A few hours later, we had a pool party. It felt great yet weird to know that we were done with our projects. We swam, we played volleyball in the pool, we had diving competitions, and we ate. Some of us had S’mores for the first time (man, they’re good). None of us wanted to think it was one of our last activities together; we just enjoyed every second to the max.

The next day was graduation. Even though space school is a two-week program, graduation is a big deal. We arrived at the university all dressed up. We knew it was our last time together. Everyone had shirts to sign, things to share and hugs to give.

The ceremony finally started. We were all sitting with our teams for one final time. Speeches were given, and then the mentors were called out one by one. Each mentor got a certificate; they talked briefly about their teams, and then they called their team members one at a time and we were given our diplomas.

To finish, Alexander gave out some special awards. The first one was for leadership and sportsmanship during the United Space School vs. NASA All Stars match, and Stephen Orr from Kentucky got it. The award was a Houston Dynamo hat signed by all the players.

Then came the presentation of the flags in which they gave flags flown over Johnson Space Center to outstanding students. The honorees were Sally Bruce and Adrian Robb from New Zealand, Garrett Garneau from Kentucky and me. I was excited when I heard my name. I knew I’d done the best job I could, but I did not expect to be recognized, especially with such an amazing award.

There were lots of hugs and plenty of tears. As soon as I hugged the first person goodbye, I started crying my eyes out. It took us forever to say goodbye no one wanted to leave. Pictures kept being taken, with people promising to keep in touch. Slowly people began to go.

The landing of rover Curiosity on Mars was the same night, and a few of us got the chance to go witness it at Space Center Houston. There were tons of activities there. I was glad to find out that a few friends were there as well. I ended up watching the launch with them, and it was tremendous fun.

It was nice being able to let my inner space nerd out with other people.

We went back home late and packed and stayed up all night. The next morning we said our final goodbyes to our hosts and were dropped off at the airport. I hate goodbyes, but I guess no one likes them.

After the program, I realized that I not only got some amazing space knowledge as expected, but I also made new friends, learned new teamwork skills and learned about how people live all around the globe.

Being with a host family taught me about how other people’s families work. It allowed me to see how similar we are yet how different. I will miss them all dearly.

I will finish high school in a few months, and then I’ll be applying to universities for math and physics programs. I love space, and I hope to one day work for the development of this science frontier. It’s time to put into practice everything United Space School 2012 taught us.

Space school: the last two days
Montse Cordero, left, and her housemate Alex Carney check out a T-38 training jet.
August 7th, 2012
11:44 AM ET

Space school: the last two days

Editor's note: Montse Cordero is a 17-year-old student from Costa Rica participating in the Foundation for International Space Education's United Space School, a two-week summer program in Houston. She'll be blogging about her experiences in the program. Need to catch up? Check out her previous posts here.

Day 9

Today was basically the last day of school. It was our day to get whatever we had left of our work done. At first, it felt like we had way too much work for one day, but as the day progressed, everything started piecing together. All of our different lines of work converged, and we were fine.

We had to do a lot of work on designing our mission patch, 3-D model and presentation, but it all looks pretty good. Tomorrow, we will just give it some final touches, and we will present our project to the head teacher and mentors to get some feedback for the actual presentation on Saturday, so tomorrow is a big stressful day.

After school, though, we got one of the neatest tours so far. Our host took us to Ellington Field, where NASA has its aircraft. We got a tour from Bob Ess, who used to be the manager of the Ares I-X Mission and now works there. They had several T-38s, and we got to take a peek inside them. On the way to see them, we ran into astronaut George Zamka, who was really nice and talked to us for a bit.

The T-38s were absolutely amazing. Then we saw the Super Guppy from a distance. This huge aircraft can carry a big payload, but it definitely looks very weird. After this, we went to see the C-9 aircraft, successor to the Vomit Comet. This plane no longer makes zero-G flights. They leave that to the company Zero G, whose plane we also saw.

To finish, we saw a B-57 plane. It has a huge wingspan, and even though it was designed to be a bomber, NASA uses it for scientific research. We even got a patch from that one!

To continue our amazing evening, we headed to an indoor soccer match with people from Boeing. My team ended up losing (probably my fault!), but it was lots of fun and a good way to get some exercise in.

To end the night, we went flying. A few of the mentors wanted to fly, so our host kindly took them, and we got to go as well. All I can say is that downtown Houston at night is gorgeous from the sky! Now I’m pretty much just looking forward to tomorrow. Hope everything goes well!

Day 10

So, no more school days left. Today was an insanely intense day. The plan was to make the last tweaks to our final presentation and practice it a few times since the actual one is tomorrow.
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Space school, day 8: nearing the end
Montse Cordero, right, with housemate Alex Carney, left and a NASA employee at Johnson Space Center's Space Food Systems Laboratory.
August 2nd, 2012
09:15 AM ET

Space school, day 8: nearing the end

Editor's note: Montse Cordero is a 17-year-old student from Costa Rica participating in the Foundation for International Space Education's United Space School, a two-week summer program in Houston. She'll be blogging about her experiences in the program. Need to catch up? Check out her previous posts here.

Day 8

Our morning started with a tour of the food lab at Johnson Space Center before school. The Space Food Systems Laboratory (SFSL) is the place where they design, prepare and package the food astronauts will eat in space. Our tour through it was quite brief, but interesting. We saw the old ways they would prepare food and how they have changed the process to make it easier and safer for the astronauts.

We only have one more day of actual work at space school, so today was intense and critical. We started our school day with a presentation on the possible uses for the International Space Station as a stepping stone for future exploration. Our speaker presented interesting ways of using the ISS to get to Mars, the moon, near Earth objects, and other places.

After some working time, we had a speaker talk to us very briefly about exoplanets, explaining the different ways to find them. To finish with our talks for the day, we had one about space law given by a mentor, and even though it didn’t directly affect our responsibilities, it was really interesting.

After school we had a game night at the university. We got to play board games, card games and pingpong. It was a really fun opportunity to get to know each other a bit better and to recharge batteries for the long, long day we will have tomorrow.

Week two at space school: Exercising bodies, minds
Montse Cordero learns how to use the Advanced Resistive Exercise Device from crew instructor Robert Tweedy.
August 1st, 2012
02:34 PM ET

Week two at space school: Exercising bodies, minds

Editor's note: Montse Cordero is a 17-year-old student from Costa Rica participating in the Foundation for International Space Education's United Space School, a two-week summer program in Houston. She'll be blogging about her experiences in the program. Need to catch up? Check out all her previous posts here.

Our day started in a way that was a lot of fun: Early in the morning, housemate Alex Carney and I were taken to a building where they have the astronaut exercise machines. We thought we were going to get to see the machines again and maybe climb on them, but it was a lot more amazing than that.

They have two treadmills and a “weightlifting” machine. We started with COLBERT (which actually does stand for something Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill). We not only got to run on it but to use a harness attached with bungees to it, just like you’d do it on board the International Space Station. It was tiring but a lot of fun.

As a little bonus, the harness we got to use is the one that astronaut Nicole Stott (@Astro_Nicole) used on the station. Then we moved on to the Advanced Resistive Exercise Device, or ARED, which is basically a weightlifting machine. We got to do a couple of squats on it. It was not easy, but for a couple of reps it was exciting.

That afternoon we traveled to Galveston to visit the University of Texas Medical Branch, where we had lunch and a few presentations about space medicine. We heard about what life in space can look like and about the effects of space travel in psychology. These were quite interesting, and they got us thinking about the biological aspects of our mission in a completely different way.

We also got to see a few of the center's labs. They talked to us about experiments such as artificial DNA synthesizing, and we got to see the machines with which they work. It was in the same building where they give all the medical tests to see if you are fit to travel to space it's the only facility that can do it.

Overall, it was an interesting day. To finish it nicely, we had dinner with our host family in Galveston and then we drove back and "geeked out" for a while in a bookstore (a good one, not like the small ones we have back at home).

Space school, days 5 & 6: the end of week one, Ad Astra, and Robonaut
Montse Cordero and Robonaut.
July 31st, 2012
12:14 PM ET

Space school, days 5 & 6: the end of week one, Ad Astra, and Robonaut

Editor's note: Montse Cordero is a 17-year-old student from Costa Rica participating in the Foundation for International Space Education's United Space School, a two-week summer program in Houston. She'll be blogging about her experiences in the program. Need to catch up? Check out all her previous posts here.

Day 5

Today was the end of week one of United Space School, and it ended with an incredible day.

Before school, our amazing host took us to see the exercise machines astronauts use in space. We weren't there for long, but we will probably be back some morning next week.

Today was basically a field trip day, which was super exciting. Before we left for our first trip, we had a great talk about ECLSS (Environmental Control and Life Support Systems) on the International Space Station. We learned about all the factors that you have to take into account to take care of the crew up in the station. This was very important for the teams taking care of the astronauts on their way to Mars and once they get there (red and green teams), but it was tons of fun for the rest of us.

Then we headed out to Ad Astra, where they’re developing the VASIMR engine, which uses plasma to propel itself. This was especially exciting for me since the founder of the company is Costa Rican. We listened to a talk about the engine, and then we toured the lab. It was amazing; we saw the prototype engine there, and the huge vacuum chamber.

Following this we went to the Houston Museum of Natural Science, where besides seeing the museum we saw a planetarium show and did an extremely fun Challenger Center mission. Not too far from there was our next stop for the day, the National Space Biomedical Research Institute at Rice University. There we toured the facilities and had a talk about human physiology in space, which was quite interesting!

To finish off our day we drove outside Houston to stargaze. It was really entertaining and we saw some pretty cool things, like Saturn. I was surprised, however, by the amount of light pollution that you notice even outside the city!

Day 6
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Space school, Day 5: How to launch a ship to low-Earth orbit
Montse Cordero, left, with her housemate Alex Carney, right, in front of the vacuum chamber at Johnson Space Center.
July 27th, 2012
12:20 PM ET

Space school, Day 5: How to launch a ship to low-Earth orbit

Editor's note: Montse Cordero is a 17-year-old student from Costa Rica participating in the Foundation for International Space Education's United Space School, a two-week summer program in Houston, Texas. She'll be blogging about her experiences in the program here. Need to catch up? Check out all her previous posts here.

I'm starting to get the feeling that all of these posts start the same way, but it's for a good reason: Every day is absolutely amazing in its own way!

Today started early again. Before school, our host took us to see some big vacuum chambers used for testing at Johnson Space Center. There are two chambers in the building: one, that is pretty gigantic, where they will test the James Webb Space Telescope, and another one that’s smaller.

The smaller one is actually human rated, so they’ll test space suits there (with people inside!). The big one takes over 12 hours to reach testing level of vacuum, and the smaller one will take more than eight. They are both quite impressive, we really enjoyed seeing them and learning about them.

Then we were off to school, where we finally started working on our project. We split up in different rooms, one per team. The Maroon Team worked on deciding which method we would choose to get our ship to low-Earth orbit. After lots of options and lots of arguments and analysis we decided to use a rail-gun system, which basically means that we will use electromagnetic energy to shoot our ship into space. Our decision was mostly based on re-usability, efficiency and cost.
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Space school, days 3 & 4: team assignments, astronauts, flying
Montse Cordero and fellow USS student and housemate Alex stand in front of NASA's Space Exploration Vehicle.
July 26th, 2012
10:24 AM ET

Space school, days 3 & 4: team assignments, astronauts, flying

Editor's note: Montse Cordero is a 17-year-old student from Costa Rica participating in the Foundation for International Space Education's United Space School, a two-week summer program in Houston. She'll be blogging about her experiences in the program here. Need to catch up? Check out her first post: Getting ready to explore space school, and her log of the first two days.

Day 3

I’ve been a space geek for a pretty long time, so being at space school is like a dream come true. I’ve wanted to learn everything related to space since I was a little girl. Influence from my parents and going to Space Camp, along with a few other factors, got me to where I am now, but I never imagined I’d get to do things like the ones I’ve been doing these days. The most amazing part is that it’s only day two!

Today started early at Johnson Space Center, where we visited their acoustics laboratory. The laboratory is where they test spaceships and their components before they fly to make sure the vibrations from the launch won't damage them. From there we went to the University of Houston, Clear Lake where our classes take place. It was pretty exciting; we knew we were getting our team assignments.

Before finding out which team we belong to, we had a talk from the admissions department of UHCL. Then we were finally told what team we were on and who our teammates were. I got my first choice, the Maroon Team. There are eight people on the team: two Chileans, two Canadians, two Welsh, an Irish and me. I’m sure it will be plenty of fun to work with them and learn about their cultures.

The Maroon Team will handle everything that has to do with taking mission components from Earth to low-Earth orbit. When we finally got to mission work, we debated and decided our mission parameters. We decided we were going to Mars on an exploration mission for more than 90 days, with five to nine astronauts, etc. These sound like easy decisions to make, but we actually had to discuss a lot.

The toughest decision was probably choosing between an exploration and a colonization mission. At first most of the group thought exploration was the best idea, but once both sides started giving arguments we split pretty much in half. Should we take the risk and just establish a settlement, or should we go on an exploratory mission first to see how humans do? After tons of really good arguments and a split vote, we chose to go and explore first. The other parameters were chosen similarly.

Tonight we had a soccer match: United Space School students vs. the NASA All Stars team. It was a pretty intense match, but in the end the best team (obviously, I’m talking about the students) won, 5-4. As soon as the match was over, Alex and I left, but for a good reason - we were taken flying! Our host has a four-seat plane; it’s small but really fun to fly in. We got to see downtown Houston from the air at night, which is a truly amazing view. We even got to “take control” of the airplane for little bits of time, which was awesome.

Day 4
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Space school: first two days
Apollo 15's Saturn V on the launch pad. A decommissioned Saturn V is on display at Johnson Space Center.
July 24th, 2012
10:20 AM ET

Space school: first two days

Editor's note: Montse Cordero is a 17-year-old student from Costa Rica participating in the Foundation for International Space Education's United Space School, a two-week summer program in Houston. She'll be blogging about her experiences in the program here. If you missed it, check out her first post: Getting ready to explore space school.

Day 0

All the students arrived today. I was dropped off at a house where I met a few other students from all over the world. There were people from New Zealand, Wales, Canada, the U.S., and Costa Rica. They all seemed really cool! Eventually, my host family picked my roommate Alex (who is American) and I up.

We drove around Houston for a little bit and took pictures with T-38s and other cool things. We had some great food for dinner and discussed what the school was going to be like.

We still don’t know much besides the fact that tomorrow we’ll have a lunch with everyone from the school, then interviews to see which team we will be on. I’m sure I’m not the only one super excited to see what’s coming! Tomorrow will be a big day, that’s the one thing I know for sure.

Day 1

Today was our first actual day of Space School. The activities didn’t begin until noon, so we took advantage of the morning with our host to go to Johnson Space Center and see some pretty neat things!
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Getting ready to explore space school
Montse Cordero visits the Space Center Houston, checking out the space shuttle mockup known as the Explorer.
July 23rd, 2012
11:39 AM ET

Getting ready to explore space school

Editor's note: Montse Cordero is a 17-year-old student from Costa Rica, participating in the Foundation for International Space Education's United Space School, a two-week summer program in Houston. She'll be blogging about her experiences in the program here.

In February, I got an e-mail that I’d been hoping to receive for almost three months. It was from Estrategia Siglo XXI, a Costa Rican nonprofit organization that promotes science and technology, saying I’d earned a scholarship for United Space School in Houston. It made me extremely happy, and it began a long period of waiting for July 22.

In November, I was invited to apply for one of two scholarships to attend United Space School. I’d barely even heard of it, so I went online to find out what it was about, and I fell in love. It's a program that invites teenagers from all over the world to Houston.

Those teens attend lectures on different space-related topics, go on field trips to amazing places such as the Space Center Houston and split into different teams to design a manned mission to Mars. I'm a huge space geek, so I just knew that I had to attend.

But first I had to send in my information to see if I got chosen by Costa Rica's selection committee.
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