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Student Astronaut's Dream Comes True

Thomas Jefferson student spends two weeks at NASA.

While many children dream of becoming an astronaut, most would be thrilled just to visit NASA and talk to some of the scientists. One local student, Courtney Dressing, was able to live out the dream of going to NASA during a very exciting time. Dressing was one of 16 students [four from the United States] chosen to work with the Planetary Society's Red Rover Goes to Mars Project at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. She is a sophomore at Thomas Jefferson High School and lives in Mount Vernon. She recently returned from her 10-day visit to JPL.

"It was great to talk to the scientists. I would love to be an astronaut," said Dressing.

The best moment for her was when Spirit landed [on Mars].

"We were able to experience the joy ourselves and see people who've spent so much time working on it and see their joy," said Dressing, who had a friend whose father worked for JPL.

That's how she found out about the contest. She sent in an essay titled "Proposed Sequence of Rover Observation for Sols [days] 10 and 11."

Dressing found out that she was one of the finalists last July. A phone interview followed and she got the news that she was one of the 16 student astronauts at the end of last August.

"I was thrilled," said Dressing.

She and her entire family headed out to California after Christmas. Her sister, Kelsey, and her mother just stayed a few days, but Courtney and her father, Steve Dressing, stayed until January 11.

"I worked every night and did press things during the day. It was the best experience of my life," she said.

Her father agreed, saying, "This was the best experience Courtney has ever had, and coming after she suffered severe damage to her left eye this summer - resulting in cataract surgery this fall - was wonderful timing. She needed a lift then, and The Planetary Society provided it by selecting her as a student astronaut.

"I enjoyed "Wild About Mars" and being with hundreds of space enthusiasts, Ray Bradbury included, at the Pasadena Convention Center when Spirit landed. We all viewed JPL from the big screen and were provided commentary by Bruce Betts of The Planetary Society. It was an absolutely wonderful, totally positive experience. I also met Bill Nye, the Science Guy, and several NASA/JPL-types while there.

"It was a particularly joyful experience to sit in the front row at the convention center and see Courtney on stage with Rafael, Jim Bell [Cornell], and Mark Adler [JPL], speaking to the hundreds in attendance. Courtney surprised me with her ability to handle the many public speaking engagements so well since I had never seen her in such a situation before. It was a great opportunity for such a young kid and she did a superb job," said Steve Dressing.

Dressing added, "The folks at The Planetary Society did a wonderful thing, in conjunction with Lego, in creating this student astronaut program. Their vision and leadership are very positive forces that will benefit the young scientists of tomorrow. They took a back seat and let these young high school students from around the world take center stage.

"Courtney has wanted to work for NASA [and go to Mars] for years now, and the experience at JPL has confirmed for her that she is on the right track. It has been a learning experience of a lifetime. She intends to return to JPL or the space program in some way after completing her college education (perhaps at Cal Tech which we toured while there), and we can only hope that she will be able to renew some old friendships when she does," said Dressing.

PRIOR TO THIS EXPERIENCE, Courtney Dressing had been thinking that she would either pursue a career in planetary sciences and astronomy or one in physics; now however, she has decided that she definitely wants to be an astronaut.

Dressing said that because the Martian sol [day] is 40 minutes longer than an earth day, her schedule shifted every day, but mostly she worked from midnight on. While Dressing did get to visit Mission Control one day, most of her work was done at JPL. Dressing and her partner, Rafael Morozowski from Brazil, worked in the science assessment room.

"We got to hear their opinions about what they were seeing. We added markings to the images that were coming in and learned a lot about geology. The scientists were busy, but willing to explain things," said Dressing, who's now home and back in her classes at Thomas Jefferson.

"I love TJ; you work a lot, but you get so much out of it," said Dressing.

One of Dressing's teachers, Lee Ann Henig, said that they were taping some of the NASA replays and panel discussions that Dressing was a part of while she was in California.

"She's been doing a bang-up job,‰" said Henig. "She's a good representative for this day and age for this teenage generation. We're proud of her and all her efforts. She's very independent and knows what she wants to do."

Daily journals of Dressing's experiences are posted at www.redrovergoestomars.org/journals/courtney_sol07.html.