St. Joseph School in York has successfully landed on Mars.
NASA’s rover, Perseverance, descended on the red planet on Feb. 18, bearing three microchips etched with more than 10 million names, including that of the PreK-6 parochial school in east York.
The venture was part of NASA’s “Send Your Name to Mars” campaign, which invited people from around the world to add their names to travel aboard the rover. The 10,932,295 submitted names were etched by an electron beam onto three fingernail-sized silicon chips and placed onto a plate mounted on the rover.
Jennifer Danczyk, Administrative Manager and Literacy Coach at St. Joseph School, submitted the school’s name months ago, after learning about the opportunity. There was no special competition or award-winning criteria for a name to be included on the rover, as NASA took all submissions, but Danczyk said the prize is found in the numerous lessons that students have learned as a result.
“I thought it would be a fantastic opportunity for St. Joseph School, where we’re all striving for our students to think beyond, to push themselves and not think that they’re limited in what they’re doing,” she said. “Why not have our school shoot for the stars?”
In a Zoom interview with The Catholic Witness on Feb. 24, Danczyk and fourth grader Addison Shepheard shared their excitement about the rover landing and how it inspired them.
The rover, which landed on Mars’ Jezero Crater, will explore the crater for microbial life, which scientists think may have existed there 3.5 billion years ago when the crater was full of water. During the course of the next two years, Perseverance will gather rock and soil samples that NASA plans to bring back to Earth via another mission several years from now.
Perseverance’s landing was a historic occasion; it was the first time that video of a rover landing on Mars could be seen. A previous rover, Curiosity, captured stop-motion images on its descent, but did not show the rover or its parachute and jetpack, like last week’s landing did.
St. Joseph School prepared its students for the momentous scientific event with NASA-provided educational materials, information about the mission, and links to the landing event. The day of the live broadcast, St. Joseph School was on a virtual-learning day due to snow. As a result, many assignments involved NASA-related lessons, and students were able to watch the rover landing at home and share the experience with their families.
Addison watched it with her mom.
“I was in my Google Classroom about to get on a Zoom and saw the link to the landing. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I think I can watch it,’” the fourth-grader said. “Later, my mom was talking about it [and] we connected it to our TV and started watching.”
“I thought it was terrific and amazing how it happened,” Addison said of the rover landing. She said she is interested in science, art and music, enjoys looking at constellations in the night sky, and has given thought to working for NASA someday – particularly as a member of the Space Station crew.
“I was feeling a little bit nervous if something would go wrong, but I was excited too because I was wondering, ‘Will they land, or will something happen?’” she said. “I thought it was so cool to watch the broadcast. They had computers set up with the steps they had to do at each part of the mission. You could see the bars as they got to each step.”
“I think it’s awesome how a group of people during this pandemic could come together, still being socially distanced and safe, and work together to do something like this,” Addison said of NASA’s efforts.
“It was amazing. We were watching it and we were a little part of that at St. Joe’s,” she said.
Danczyk said she swelled with emotion when Mission Control announced the rover’s successful landing after its seven-month journey into space.
“When they said it touched down, it brought a tear to my eye,” she said. “In the age that we’re in right now with the pandemic, where so many things seem to be impossible to accomplish, last July they launched the rocket with the rover on it, and last week they were able to successfully land it.”
In the days since the landing, Danczyk has spoken with the students about the lessons it presents, including the vast universe that God created, the value of teamwork and perseverance even in the midst of the challenges the pandemic has brought.
“The rover’s landing parachute had a hidden message inside it, written in binary code. Some very clever people cracked the code, which says, ‘Dare mighty things,” Danczyk pointed out. “What a message for the kids, to understand that the world is their universe. They have limitless possibilities, and St. Joe’s is going to be part of who they become and the dreams they have.”
“[The students] understand that Mars is an extension of our universe that God has created and that we don’t fully know about yet…. All this is out there for them to explore,” she said. “For St. Joe’s to be on Mars, it lets the kids know that their dreams are possible.”
(For information about St. Joseph School, visit www.sjyschool.org.)
(Photos courtesy of St. Joseph School in York. Rover photo from Wikipedia.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness