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Student wins NASA contest for Mars probe plan

Student wins NASA contest for Mars probe plan

ONLINE EXCLUSIVE

By Emilie Boeing, Temple Telegram Staff Writer
Courtesy Temple Daily Telegram

It’s never been done before, but Eric Sanford thought of a way to do it. The disabled military veteran and local college student led the winning Community College Aerospace Scholar team ina competition sponsored by NASA.

The assignment — build a model robot that could collect soil samples on Mars and return with them to Earth. “It’s never been done before,” said Sanford, who attends both Temple College and the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor as part of a vocational rehabilitation scholarship for veterans. The former military policeman will graduate from UMHB in a year with a degree in computer science.

“What I found through this whole process and what surprised me is that my strengths really aren’t in the technical aspects of computer science,” Sanford said. “My strengths really are working with a team and even leading a team and my best strength really is public speaking and giving presentations.”

A flyer at Temple College led Sanford to the College Aerospace Program, a two-day event held in Houston earlier this month. After tedious research, he submitted a 10-page paper detailing his plans for the space rover and was selected to compete with other students from across the state.

“They broke us into groups and made me the project engineer,” Sanford said. “What we were trying to do was demonstrate things they have to do in the real world when you’re trying to get a contract from the government. We actually formed a company and formed a model robot that could be used on Mars and then we gave proof of concept demonstration, and from there we had to give a formal proposal speech as to why ours was the best.”

As project engineer, Sanford said his goal was to keep group members on task and present the concept. He said the win came easily because his teammates, including Temple College student, Michael Web, stayed focused.

“I had a huge advantage. My team was really, really good,” Sanford said. “”My team members each had our own unique individual strengths and nobody on my team was afraid to share what their strength was and everybody was willing to accept their roles in the team.”

Sanford said NASA wanted to test the endurance, focus and talents of every participating team.

“We had very short deadlines because NASA intentionally tries to stress us out to see how we react,” Sanford said. “The people on my team were all doing things they were competent at. So we really didn’t make many mistakes that we had to go back and correct. It was a combination of that and the final presentation; those two things won it for us.”

Sanford hopes to find a job more closely related to public relations than computer science when he graduates. He said the most NASA could offer was a paid internship next summer in Houston, but with his wife and two children in central Texas, moving might not be feasible. Sanford said he values the experience and the sparkle it will add to his resume.

“You learn a lot about yourself when they put you through high-pressure situations like that because we had actual NASA engineers that trying to push us to see what we could do,” Sanford said. “NASA really thrives on new ideas but sometimes the engineers at NASA, if they have been there a while, start thinking more inside the box of what they’ve done before. And they are looking for fresh ideas of how to do a sample return mission from Mars because it’s never been done before.”

At least not yet.