OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Students pursue dreams of space travel

02/15/2000

CORVALLIS - Two accomplished young students at Oregon State University say they're willing to fight their way through advanced mathematics, a tough engineering curriculum and the nausea that gives the "vomit comet" aircraft its nickname if it means advancing their dream of flying in outer space.

For OSU, the current involvement of these two female students in a NASA-sponsored program is a perfect example of the university's goal of getting more women interested in science and engineering careers that have been traditionally dominated by men, and bringing the thrill of science and original research not only to the school's undergraduate students but even K-12 students on a path to college. But for Marcia Whittaker and Heather McCaig, this program is just one more step on what they very seriously hope will be a long, long, really long journey.

Mars, perhaps?

"I've wanted to be an astronaut since I was six years old," said Whittaker, a freshman in chemical engineering from Pendleton. "I'll do whatever it takes to get up there in space."

Toward that goal Whittaker is a member of the Naval ROTC program at OSU, partly because military training has been a frequent stepping-stone to success as a NASA astronaut. She's loaded up on all the math and science courses she can find in both high school and college. And as an OSU freshman she's getting an opportunity to do everything from original research to consulting with NASA engineers.

McCaig, also a freshman in chemical engineering from Portland, says she's been fascinated by space since grade school, and was partly inspired after hearing a presentation by a NASA astronaut, Donald Pettit, who also is an OSU alumnus with a degree in chemical engineering.

"It was so inspirational to talk with Donald Pettit," McCaig said. "We couldn't stop asking questions, it was amazing. And as part of this project we're going to spend some time both professional and social with him, have dinner at his home in Houston."

The students are also hoping to connect with another OSU alumnus in the astronaut program, Bill Oefelein, a 1988 graduate in electrical engineering, who is a pilot and may even be able to fly with them during their experiments.

Both students say they are planning to pursue their education to the doctoral level and are dead serious about trying to join the astronaut program. McCaig so far has helped develop the research proposal that forms the basis for OSU's project and has done whatever other tasks she's able to help with.

During the upcoming flight on the aircraft that provides simulated weightlessness through its power dives, she may be responsible for videotaping the experiment and crew activities.

The two women say they also will get involved with Saturday Academy outreach programs this summer with K-12 youth around Oregon. In similar fashion, the university will make this project part of its Summer Experience for Science and Engineering for Youth, an effort to get more young students and under-represented minorities interested in careers in science.

And maybe someday get a gut-churning ride on the "vomit comet" themselves.