A journey to NASA with Haberdashers’ Monmouth School

April 24, 2024

An overview from Mr. G. Dunn, Head of Physics

36 Haberdashers’ Monmouth School students departed Heathrow for George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, Texas, at 3am on Sunday 24th March. Despite a few hours of turbulence, tempers never frayed, and the British Airways staff commented on our pupils’ politeness, saying they were a credit to the school.

After a smooth transition through airport security, we made it to the hotel and after a quick bite to eat, the girls got some well-earned rest before the beginning of their NASA journey the following day.

The NASA days started early, usually 7.30am. Slightly jet-lagged, the students were transported to the NASA Johnson Space Centre and introduced to the classrooms of the Space Centre University building where most of their tasks would be carried out. After a briefing they were given a tour of the centre before it opened to the public and were taken on a tram ride to see the buildings and fabrication facilities, where modules are built for the international space station and the Artemis moon mission. The highlight was walking around an unused Saturn V rocket of the type that first took men to the moon. The scale of it took our breath away.

Pupils pose at the top end of the Saturn V rocket


Staff pose at the business end of the Saturn V rocket. Note the size!

Back in the classroom, the pupils were divided into competing teams to complete tasks throughout the week. Their work would be judged each day and at the end of the week a winning team would be chosen. The first task was to design and build and launch a two-stage chemical rocket to conduct altitude tests the next day. There were two rocket design sizes to choose from and the girls came up with many fin designs, some more plausible that others, but everyone made a good go of it.

On Tuesday morning we headed bright and early to the NASA centre to watch our rocket launches. Needless to say, there were a few disasters (staff rocket included) and one that tipped early, sending it into the crowd rather than the sky! Having woken everyone up with that, the other teams did better, and the Visions rep said one of our team’s rockets went the highest he’d ever seen.

Testing our homemade rockets

After dodging our own rockets, we were driven to Mission Control to see the very room where the Apollo missions were guided to the moon’s surface 50 years before. As fate would have it, the Texas governor, Greg Abbott, was there to make a headline announcement about future NASA funding and sadly we were guided back to our vehicle. The visit to Mission Control would have to wait for another day.

Back in the classroom, the second task was to protect a marshmallow from temperatures of -200 degrees for 2 minutes, and to protect an egg from a 2000 degree flame for the same time. This was to simulate the challenges of living in space and of re-entry to Earth, that Astronauts routinely face. Pupils were set to design a heat shield and a cryogenic capsule to be tested the next day.

The marshmallow cryogenic capsule under construction with a thermocouple sensor to monitor temperature.

The next day involved designing habitats to live on Mars. This was no small task as astronauts need to be provided with food, air, protection from radiation and plenty of entertainment in their isolated and hostile environments. Comfort was also key! The winners presented their designs to the rest of the class and answered questions about their creation. These were surprisingly technical as some internet research had to be done about how to recycle air and deal with the harsh radiation of the Martian surface. The winning design (below) was put on display for a week at the NASA centre.

While this was going on, the pupils were given a break to listen to Dr Gary Kitmachur, who has worked for NASA for 45 years, starting with analysing moon rocks and ending by designing and building space modules for the ISS. There was also an interesting Q&A afterwards. He was a fascinating speaker who gave the girls a great snapshot of life as a NASA employee.

Posing with Dr Gary Kitmachur.

We then finally had the chance to go back to the Mission Control Centre and sat in the seats that relatives and dignitaries used to watch the launches. We could even sit in the exact same seat that Queen Elizabeth II sat in all those years ago. It has all been left unchanged, and they even play back the mission data from the first landing.

Mission Control

The final task for the teams was to design and build a robot to perform tasks with human guidance, and to program a second rover that would perform tasks without human intervention. This took a long time and once completed, the teams competed to see whose robot would perform the best and complete the most tasks.

We also finally got to test our heat shields and cryogenic chambers. The winning teams were those that warmed the egg the least and kept the marshmallow from freezing solid in a liquid nitrogen bath. The back of the heat shields often approached 200 degrees, but the egg survived the ordeal, meaning our ‘eggstronaut’ returned to Earth safely!

Trying not to cook an egg with a home-designed heat shield!

Other highlights on this day included:

A trip to see a space shuttle close up:

Attempting to touch the underside of Elon Musk’s falcon rocket:

Visiting the flight deck of the shuttle:

On the Thursday afternoon the girls completed their last major exercise where they went to a local pool to do some weightless training. They were given scuba gear and asked to perform a variety of underwater tasks, from retrieving items to building an airlock and swimming through it. For many this was a first, having never used scuba equipment before, and was a highlight of the week.

Sadly, it had to end sometime, and Friday inevitably came. On that day the girls got to know the overall winners of the team challenges, who then had to go on stage and receive their gold medals to much applause.

After the prize giving, the girls got to quiz space shuttle pilot Brian Duffy about his four trips to space and how it changed his perspective on life. It was truly fascinating to hear a real astronaut talk about life in weightless conditions and his view of the Earth as he orbited it every 90 minutes. He also explained how you perform simple tasks like washing in space and how hard it is to re-adjust to having weight back on Earth.

Students posing with Brian Duffy.

In the evenings we enjoyed bowling, laser tag, line dancing and an evening at the theme park. We also made the most of the Texan cuisine.

Saturday was devoted to rest and shopping before heading to the airport to catch our flight home.

The trip was an amazing experience for all! Science, inspiration and fun were all duly served across the short week. The staff only have praise for the behaviour and endeavour of the pupils and even the Visions rep, Niall Abbott, gave a parting speech in which he praised the girls for how hard they worked and presented themselves.

It was a trip that will live long in the memory and we send thanks to all the staff at NASA who made us feel so welcome.