Jerry Caleb Jebasingh speaks about his trip to the Kennedy Space Center and the wealth of experience gained

A mind-boggling display of rockets at the rocket park. This is the first image Jerry Caleb Jebasingh recalls from his recent NASA trip. “All the rockets have been part of successful space missions. After that, they are dismantled and kept here for public display,” he says.

Jerry went to NASA after winning first prize at Skill Angels Super Brain contest in the under-18 category. “Thousands of students participated in competition that tests memory visual processing, focus and attention, problem solving, speed and linguistics. As a top scorer in my category, I got the NASA bonanza,” he explains.

“Superb,” the teenager, of his experience. He is now set to pursue mechanical engineering at Karunya University. “I want to become a pilot and, eventually, an astronaut. I want to be associated with some useful invention in the field of food, water, energy or health…”

The three-day NASA tour enlightened him on the hard work and dedication that astronauts put in. He came face-to-face with the priceless Atlantis spacecraft. State-of-the-art multimedia presentations, interactive exhibits and high-tech simulators took him through the complex systems and components that went behind this incredible feat of engineering. He learnt about NASA’s 30-year Space Shuttle Program, the launch of Hubble Space Telescope, and more. “I could touch and feel the engine, the wheels of Atlantis... At the model space station, it was time for a real-time experience of a space mission. Once inside a rocket, your body is inclined to 90 degrees…it was amazing.”

A number of videos took him through the hardships faced by astronauts. “They go through rigorous training to acquaint themselves with zero gravity. They dive into a 6.2-million-gallon pool known as the neutral buoyancy lab to experience it. They do a lot of workouts on the spacecraft to tackle stress. Astronaut Mark Lee, who has completed four space missions, shared his experiences with us. It was an eye-opener.” Jerry also walked on the podium of the space craft where Neil Armstrong once walked as he set off on his mission to the moon. “I also attended a robotics workshop and participated in a competition there. I assembled a Robot and fed the programme using NXT software and tested for basic functions such as going forward and backward and rotation. I also learnt how to use ultrasonic sensors on the robot,” says the aspiring astronaut.

He remembers how a giant vehicle that travels forward and backward at a speed of two miles per hour carried the rockets for assembling at the rocket assembling centre.

The youngster also saw some exhibits including the Moon buggy (the lunar vehicle) and samples of lunar rock (the basalt sample which is 3.7 billion years old) collected by astronauts. The second stage of Saturn V rocket SA-514 that was not launched was also on display. It was intended to be used for the Apollo 18 or Apollo 19 flight to the moon.

The trip also gave him the opportunity to take up pilot training and manoeuvre a Cessna 172 aircraft. “It was a 20-minute flight at 3,000 ft. Though the pilot helped with landing and take off, I operated the controls. It was a dream come true. The pilot also put me through the zero gravity experience by switching off the controls momentarily,” he laughs.

Jerry thanks his father Jebasingh and mother Barzilal for the encouragement. “We knew only at the last minute that we had to bear all the expenses except the air fare. Still, they wanted me to take up the trip,” he says.

This aspiring astronaut is also in awe of the projects taken up by students at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, the world’s largest, fully accredited university specialising in aviation and aerospace. “They are working on mobile apps driven by aerospace and manned vehicles for research in pockets that humans can’t reach. We should have such universities in India to motivate us. During our interactions at NASA, many experts felt that what Indian students lack are opportunities to explore their creative potential,” he says.