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Posted July 11, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Mission to Mars: Student goes to NASA academy to continue studies of space

Kevin Kittinger
Kevin Kittinger, a Central High School student, sits at home recently holding a chart that is part of his research on how humans might live on Mars in the near future. Kittinger has been planning to attend a summer NASA academy, the culmination of his schoolwork this year. Rich Cooley/Daily


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By Preston Knight -- pknight@nvdaily.com

EDINBURG -- Kevin Kittinger has certain success stories to match each tale of failure.

A success: the submarine he built out of paper when he was 8. A corresponding failure: the rocket made out of a Pringles can that did not shoot in any specific direction.

Another success: in general, the many LEGO kits he went through growing up. And the failure: in general, his inability to show off anything because the kits, like the submarine, are long gone.

But success and failure are part of the trial and error process involved with science, a subject matter that Kittinger, a rising senior at Central High School, has enjoyed for as long as he can remember and has used for the past seven months to develop living quarters that would enable humans to inhabit Mars.

With three other local rising high school seniors from the Northern Shenandoah Valley -- Summer Crowe, also of Central, and Alyssa Rumsey and Irina Klissourova, both of Handley High School -- Kittinger was scheduled to begin a week-long summer academy at the NASA Langley Research Center today in Hampton. The academy is the end result of a semester-long online course -- the Virginia Aerospace Science and Technology Scholars program, which is in its second year -- that students statewide took, earning college credits as they focused primarily on a project looking at the various aspects of a human mission to Mars.

Kittinger, 16, has worked with about 18 others on what it would take to live on Mars, while other groups have been assigned to investigate getting to Mars, working there and returning. The academy will be nice, he said, because all of the groups can finally communicate in person.

At Langley, the students will also work alongside engineers who are actually planning the Mars mission.

"Kevin has quite a time ahead for him," said Mary Sandy, director of the Virginia Space Grant Consortium, which developed the program.

According to a news release, students "drive the questions to be asked of the different teams, negotiate different terms of agreement, realize tradeoffs in technologies and funding must be made, and must employ appropriate communication skills in working with other teams."

Crowe, 17, said she wants to go into the Air Force, and combined with her interests in math and science, she decided to sign up for the course. She has heard rave reviews about the academy.

"Everybody says it's a lot of fun," Crowe said.

Kittinger said a posting in Central's morning announcements tipped him off to the program. Interested in engineering and science -- he plans to attend Lord Fairfax Community College and then go to Virginia Commonwealth University to study biomedical engineering -- he said it sounded like something he should pursue.

"I'm always up to a challenge," Kittinger said.

With its physics-based equations and essays, the course provided its share of tough mental tasks. One for Kittinger and a partner of his was the construction of living quarters on Mars, which Kittinger approached as a hexadome, a series of hexagonal plates built like a dome. Bee hives, with their durability and toughness, are examples of hexadomes.

Kittinger's partner suggested a new plastic material to be placed over the hexadome. This challenge, as a result, was met.

Kittinger also developed the Vulcan space expedition shuttle, a vehicle to be used for deep space endeavors in the future, as well as a craft for Mars that would drop off a rover and base, which would be ready by 2013-14.

"After doing all of this, I have no doubt we have the capabilities to go to Mars," he said. "I know we will get to Mars in my lifetime at least."

What's holding us back now, Kittinger added, is energy efficiency.

"Solar panels only get you so much," he said.

The merits of spending so much of one's time on a mission to Mars has been scrutinized by some people he knows, Kittinger said, but he shrugs it off by stressing how important it is for him to feel challenged. The success that could breed from that could just one day help the same people who think he is wasting his time with outer space.

Kittinger wants to apply his knowledge and interest in science to enriching the lives of others. He gets the inspiration from family: An uncle died from Friedreich's ataxia, a disease impacting the nervous system; an aunt lives with the disease; and a cousin suffers from autism.

"With the right combination of technology, you can help people," Kittinger said. "That's what I go for."

Sitting in a cage in his room is yet another personal success story. Yoda, the family's Double Yellow-Headed Amazon parrot of four years, occupies a corner spot.

The success: His vocabulary is large and personality playful, such as when a blanket is draped over the cage at night, he will sometimes peak from underneath and say, "I see you." And the requisite matching failure: Yoda craves attention and can make a lot of racket if he's not getting it.

That's OK, Kittinger said, because like its owner, bigger things await Yoda.

"He's going to be the first parrot to set foot on Mars," he said.

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