Marlin's Martians: Engineering class designs model planet landers

Savannah Vasquez

Dawn Pack’s fifth grade Introduction to Engineering class was in for a surprise Tuesday morning as their guest speaker for the day was former NASA rocket scientist, Dr. Anton Vanderwyst.

Vanderwyst, an aerospace engineer now working at Eglin Air Force Base, was visiting the class to lead an experiment in building a foreign planet landing vehicle.

“We are working on a Mars-lander,” said Vanderwyst. “The students have to drop marshmallows quickly from high up and we want them to stay in the car.”

The purpose of the experiment was to create the lightest landing vehicle that could safely drop astronauts on a planet as well as keep the astronauts safe in the event of an accident.

“NASA has a lot of concerns to try to land people safely on other planets,” said Vanderwyst. “With this project the students have to make sure their craft is stable and they have to use teamwork and redesign phases which we implement in the engineering realm.”

The students split into six teams and had 10 minutes to construct their landers using a piece of cardboard, a small paper cup, three index cards, 10 miniature marshmallows, eight plastic straws, three rubber bands and some tape. Two large marshmallows sat inside the cup and represented astronauts in the craft.

“With this we are trying to expose them to the careers as well as the problems that we face when trying to develop these types of things,” said Vanderwyst. “We ask them questions such as, ‘What would we do in the case of an explosion, would the astronauts be able to get out safely?’”

After the initial landing test, each team got six additional minutes to redesign their craft and try to fix the problems that the practice run presented.

In the end two teams went head to head as they were the only groups that passed all three tests of teamwork, astronauts ejecting and safe planet landing. The tie was broken by the team with the lightest craft.

“This is how NASA does it,” Vanderwyst said of the experiment. “We design and redesign and we test to make sure we can save our astronauts.”