SAC Student Spends a Winning Time at NASA

August 1, 2018

Russell Guerrero - Public Information Officer

San Antonio College student Krystal Paul recently spent part of her summer at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia to learn more about the space agency and participate in an interplanetary challenge.

The visit was informative for Paul, who is studying computer engineering. She was part of a student team that won several awards in a contest that involved creating a Mars rover out of Legos.

During the spring semester, one of her professors told her about the NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars (NCAS) onsite experience. The NCAS program was formed to engage underrepresented and underserved students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in authentic learning experiences to promote and sustain a diverse workforce.

Paul, who said she always has been a "space nut," applied and was one of 280 community college students from across the U.S. chosen to participate in the summer opportunity.

Before arriving at Langley, Paul was assigned to a 10-person team that would compete against three other teams to design, program, and market a Mars rover. Each team formed a company looking to land a NASA contract. Paul's team named themselves Golden Horizons.

Langley, We Have a Problem 
Once at Langley, the Golden Horizons crew spent several hours building a small rover that traveled across a floor and collected mineral samples or simulated "rocks from Mars." However, the team had to deal with a massive problem. The rover didn't want to work. A sensor on the rover failed to recognize any mineral samples.

Just as things were looking bleak for the team, one of the lead designers had a burst of inspiration and fixed the sensor in time for the first contest. Teams competed head-to-head to see which rover could collect the most samples. The Gold Horizons team was victorious. "We blew everyone out of the water," said Paul, adding they picked up more samples than some of the other teams combined.

The next contest was to reconfigure the rover so it could be used to recover downed rovers on Mars (in this case, Hot Wheels cars around a floor). The team took second place.

Social Media Secret Weapon 
The final contest moved from Mars to the boardroom, where the Golden Horizons team made a presentation to grab the NASA contract. Paul, who was the marketing and communications manager for the team, had a secret weapon. Before leaving for Langley, Paul was given permission to post updates to the SAC Instagram account. During her pitch, Paul gave analytics that included a "test market in San Antonio which garnered 3,000 impressions."

At the end of the competition, Golden Horizons got the gold and was awarded the NASA contract. Paul also won the Capsule Communicators Award for Best Use of Social Media.

Along with the competition, Paul and the rest of the students toured the facilities and saw the equipment NASA was working one for future mission. She attended lectures on the opportunities available at NASA and talked with key NASA staff about the agency.

The experience made a big impact on Paul and she would like to return to NASA soon. "I want to be there. Even if I am not designing a rocket, I want to help out and keep my eyes on the sky.