Twins Cory and Morganna Beliz celebrated their 10th birthdays Friday in a most unusual way.
The pair was among a handful of Pathways Charter School students and family members invited to take the remote controls of a NASA prototype drill being tested in at McMurdo Station in Antarctica in anticipation of a 2020 Mars exploration.
"I was the first one to operate it and I set the &‘seek' command to get to the bottom of the hole," Cory Beliz said. "I think it's cool to be able to run it from Earth and have it operate on Mars."
Not Mars quite yet.
A team of seven scientists are on a six-week assignment at McMurdo testing a drill they hope will eventually be chosen as a tool sent for NASA exploration projects on Mars.
"You need to test it in the type of environment you are going to run it in," team leader Margarita Marinova said, speaking through Skype, to the students gathered near the Rohnert Park offices of the independent study charter school. "It has to work 100 percent because there's no one there to fix it."
The environment in the Antarctic is as close to that of Mars as any place on Earth, the scientists told the students.
"Because there isn't much liquid water, everything looks different," Marinova said. "Mars is also very dry."
On Friday, poor visibility near McMurdo had grounded planned treks by helicopter "into the field," outside of camp. Wind whipped the protective tarp covering the 5?-foot drill while a light snow fell.
"It's 25-degrees Fahrenheit and this is as warm as it gets," Marinova said.
The team is trying to push the drill to see how it responds — especially when things go wrong, Brian Glass, NASA's drill leader on the project, told the students.
"We are here to try to break it creatively and put it through its paces to see if it can" repair itself, he said. "Part of what we want to do is fail in as many different ways as possible."
That's where kids at the controls comes in.
"I figured if anybody can break a drill, it's fifth graders," said Chris McKay, planetary scientist with NASA who ran the lesson on the Rohnert Park end.
"This is not a road show. This is real; things go wrong; things don't work," he said.
To that end, the Skype connection was lost multiple times mid-lesson Friday morning and the drilling started late when the remote control program shut down.
Veteran Pathways teacher Julie Carter was the key to connecting students with NASA. She spent four weeks in 2011 as cook at a NASA camp on Devon Highland in the high Arctic and plans to stay even longer this summer.
Bringing her students into the same room with NASA scientists and giving them a chance to manipulate cutting edge tools and do work in real time is a unique opportunity, she said.
"I wanted them to get a sense of wonder about just things that are beyond our normal life," she said.