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Future astronauts test their mettle at NASA

Natasa-Eleni Tsitali and Nesim Kalosi expect their generation to be the one to take the first steps on Mars. If a NASA program set for 2020 comes to fruition, they want to be among the first to learn the secrets of the red planet firsthand. Meanwhile, they will be testing the universe’s waters next month at NASA’s International Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, in the United States. International Space Camp lasts 10 days and hosts 170 students from various countries, along with 85 teachers who serve as chaperones. At the camp, the students learn about space and the astronauts who study it and experience at least a sense of space travel through simulated space stations and spacecraft. Each country participating in NASA’s Space Camp selects two students for the trip, a boy and a girl. In Greece, the Eugenides Foundation finances the trip to Huntsville. The students are selected by the Astronomy and Space Society of Volos, which organizes the Panhellenic Astronomy Competition with the sponsorship of the Education Ministry. This year’s winners in Greece were Nesim, a high school student at Aghios Dimitrios in Attica, and Natasa-Eleni, who studies in Edessa in northern Greece. Both students want to study astrophysics and are fascinated by the workings of outer space. Boyhood dream Nesim, for instance, says his top goal is to travel in space. «Astronauts are already good theorists but they also have to be strong physically,» said Nesim, who is originally from Albania and says he was attracted to space even as a very young boy. «We used to live in a town in Albania that did not have much lighting and that’s where I first really noticed the starry sky,» he told Kathimerini. «Something about those stars magnetized me, the mystery they held.» A cousin first introduced Nesim to the empirical science behind the dreamy stars. When his family moved to Greece and he started second grade in elementary school, he continued to build on his fascination. «In fifth grade physics I realized how much I liked astronomy,» he explained. «Starting in the first year of middle school I read about the universe all the time, watched documentaries, listened to lectures and studied in the library of the Eugenides Foundation, which is where I found out about the contest. I was in my last year of middle school. I had to wait a year to participate in the examinations, since it’s only for high school students. I was selected on the first try.» Nesim is a grounded child and he knows life is full of difficulties. So he says if he doesn’t fulfill his dream of space travel then he would like to keep learning about astronomy as a hobby. Would he go to Mars? «I don’t dare chase such big dreams, but I would like to travel outside of Earth,» he confessed. «If the NASA expedition to Mars actually happens in 2020, the astronauts which will travel to Mars will be from my generation and they will be in their 30s by then. Based on today’s facts, the trip would last about six months. There are many problems which scientists must solve and it is in the hands of my generation to solve the remaining problems before we can settle the planet.» Science of stars Natasa-Eleni devoted herself to the study of space as a little girl, when she watched a documentary envisioning space travel to Venus. She won the NASA trip to Huntsville on her second try. «I was in elementary school at the time and I didn’t really understand a lot of things,» she admitted. «But I remember how enthusiastic I was about space. I started reading whatever I could find. By the time I reached high school and learned about the astronomy competition, I started seeking out more information to prepare myself. Along the way, it became very clear to me that I wanted to pursue astronomy. I hung around with other children who were just as interested in the field. We visited the Eugenides Foundation’s Planetarium in Athens and did summer school in astronomy in Volos, where, at the end of August, young people and adults can attend classes for five days from 9 a.m. to midnight, since there are also nighttime presentations under a star-filled sky.» Hands-on experience Both Natasa-Eleni and Nesim expect the experience at NASA to be sensational. Students who have already participated in International Space Camp roundly praise it and say it enriched their experiences in astronomy. «This is the goal of NASA and our own goal,» explained Dionysis Simopoulos, director of the Digital Planetarium of the Eugenides Foundation. «The experience that these students build and pass on helps diffuse this knowledge and familiarize the public with the research and the technologies applied in space.» Top scientists and astronauts participate in the theoretical portion of the program, which introduces the students to the odyssey of space travel. After these lessons, they can recognize the name of German scientist Georg von Tiesenhausen (a NASA colleague of Wernher von Braun, a pioneer in rocket technology generally considered the father of the US space program). Students stay in accommodation resembling a space station and even sleep on cots that resemble a spaceship’s.