Stellenbosch Municipality

Boland learners on way to NASA

By: Stephanie Nieuwoudt

Meeting real-life astronauts, learning about jet propulsion and psychological effects on long-duration spaceflights and how the weightless environment of being in space affects the human body.

These are some of the topics two Boland learners will learn about as part of the United Space School programme at NASA’s Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas. Alet-Mari van der Merwe (17), a learner at Hoërskool Stellenbosch and Antoni Meyer (16) a grade 11 learner at Paarl Gymnasium are the only two South Africans who have been chosen for this programme. They will leave for the US on 24 July.

“I burst into tears when I heard that I was one of those going to Houston,” said Alet-Mari. “It will be a wonderful experience. Learners from 24 countries will be on the programme and I know I will benefit greatly from the interaction. We also had to complete five challenging projects and because of the research, I have already learnt a lot more than I thought I would – and this even before I have left South Africa.”

CAPTION: Conrad Sidego, Executive Mayor of Stellenbosch chats to Alet-Mari van der Merwe a few days before her departure for NASA, Houston, Texas, where she will attend a two week programme.

On Tuesday (14 July 2015) she and her mother, Renata, had tea in the office of Conrad Sidego, Executive Mayor of Stellenbosch. “Your experience at NASA is an opportunity that is also a crash course in what it entails to be human,” said Sidego.

“Your perspective will broaden and you will look differently at your school, your town and the world. I want to urge you and other young people to be brave and to always be willing to take risks. By accepting new challenges, you can help to design the future.”

The aim of the program is to kindle and develop a new generation’s interest in and involvement with space and related sciences.

Alet-Mari says it was a surprise to realise how many different career opportunities there are at NASA.

“NASA employs among others astronauts, engineers, scientists, people in the medical field and designers. We shall attend lecture by people from all of these disciplines. All the learners will work on a large project with the theme Manned Mission to Mars. The five projects we had to work on determined in which group we will work once we get to Houston and each group will bring its own skills to the project.”

Antoni Meyer (16), who lives in Melkbosstrand, says he decided to become an aerospace engineer when he was in grade 4.

“Since then I have never doubted my decision. This programme will take me right inside NASA and is an opportunity to see up close what exactly I will do one day,” he says. “This is also not about being the top student at school, but about having a passion. There are other learners in my school who do much better than me academically, but they do not have the same passion as I.”

Why did Alet-Mari apply for this programme?

“Some time ago I met advocate Wida du Plessis who through Young Wings Project does selection for the programme. I couldn’t stop asking her questions and we spoke for hours. She inspired me.”

Alet-Mari says her field of interest is design. Although she has never before considered traveling to space, someone recently asked her if she would like to do this. Since then this possibility has been in the back of her head.

“I might one day decide to travel to Mars,” she says.