Living

His rocketing space science career personifies center’s success

Hardaway High School and Columbus State University graduate Cameron McCarty is working on his doctoral degree in planetary sciences at the University of Tennessee. He grew up at the CSU Coca-Cola Space Science Center, where he posed for this photo in May. He worked as a volunteer at the center when he was still in elementary school and later as a part-time employee. McCarty now works with NASA on the Opportunity rover project, photographing the surface of Mars. His image of the May 2013 solar eclipse from Cape York, Australia, was the NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day.
Hardaway High School and Columbus State University graduate Cameron McCarty is working on his doctoral degree in planetary sciences at the University of Tennessee. He grew up at the CSU Coca-Cola Space Science Center, where he posed for this photo in May. He worked as a volunteer at the center when he was still in elementary school and later as a part-time employee. McCarty now works with NASA on the Opportunity rover project, photographing the surface of Mars. His image of the May 2013 solar eclipse from Cape York, Australia, was the NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day. rtrimarchi@ledger-enquirer.com

As the Columbus State University Coca-Cola Space Science Center prepares to celebrate its 20th anniversary next weekend, perhaps nobody personifies the facility’s impact better than Cameron McCarty.

He has gone from a kid attending as many summer camps and astronomy nights there as he could, to an assistant helping conduct the programs, to a NASA intern and now a doctoral student working as part of the team that operates the Mars Rover Curiosity and photographs the planet’s surface.

McCarty, 24, credits CCSSC executive director Shawn Cruzen and the center’s other staff members for having such a positive influence on his rocketing career path.

“They’re always looking for ways to improve the science center and make it that much more friendly for students and welcoming and educational,” he said.

He also credits his father.

‘Dream come true’

McCarty’s family moved from Grand Rapids, Mich., to Columbus in December 2000. The CCSSC hired his father, Dave, to become a 3-D animator and planetarium producer for the center’s Omnisphere Theater.

“It was like a dream come true, kind of having my own science center to explore,” said McCarty, whose mother, Crisa, works at Aflac.

At 15, McCarty’s first job was running planetarium shows in the center’s Omnisphere Theater and selling tickets at the front desk. Then he helped conduct astronomy nights and taught folks about the night sky at the center or during trips to Callaway Gardens and Providence Canyon. By the time he graduated from Hardaway High School in 2010, he had more than 200 hours of experience operating telescopes.

Cruzen recalled one astronomy night when a man approached McCarty and said, “Hey, kid, get off the telescope,” thinking he was a brazen boy messing around with some expensive equipment. McCarty couldn’t convince the gentleman that he indeed worked at the CCSSC, so Cruzen did.

“Cameron was proficient with a telescope at 11,” said Cruzen, who has worked at the CCSSC since 1997 and succeeded Carole Rutland as executive director, first on an interim basis in 2004 and then officially in 2005.

McCarty was the only freshman at the Florida Institute of Technology to work on exoplanet research. But when FIT became too expensive for him and CSU started an astrophysics and planetary geology program, McCarty returned home.

And he returned to working part time at the CCSSC while studying at CSU. He also participated in research about supernova remnants and the Sun.

“I got to work with data from telescopes in space and control the telescope here at the science center,” he said. “In many undergraduate programs around the country, you are put off, taught what you need to know, and take your school’s namesake into grad school, where you get to do the real science; not at CSU with the Coca-Cola Space Science Center. I was doing graduate-level research and getting time by myself with a research-grade telescope.

“When a grant came and the center was able to upgrade the telescope, they asked the input of their students to help. We looked up cameras and brands, and while the decision was ultimately theirs, they included us in the process and gave us the chance to know what the real world is like.”

The CCSSC developed the Real-time Interactive Solar Observatory. Students helped write the code, design lessons and integrate the telescope into a full-service website, where teachers login and request session time for their classes.

“Their actual students control an actual telescope, take actual pictures of the actual Sun and perform actual science with it,” McCarty said.

‘Astro Cam the Spaceman’

McCarty joined CCSSC staff member Matthew Bartow on visits to area schools to teach students in grades K-5 about the solar system. He helped lead tours at the center and conduct simulated space missions. He created the character “Astro Cam the Spaceman,” complete with a blue astronaut suit, and taught hands-on science lessons to the general public. He helped design and build two exhibits in the center’s lobby: the twisting sound tubes that enable visitors to talk to each other from 50 feet away, and the “black hole” machine, where coins spin around to demonstrate a black hole’s gravity well.

Conducting the public programs as a student allowed McCarty to demonstrate his “soft skills,” Cruzen said.

“He can present material,” Cruzen said. “He knows how to interact with people and work with people, and that’s one of the things that students pick up working here at the space science center that industry and science teams badly want. They badly want people that know how to be social, know how to communicate, know how to organize things and be responsible, be a team player, show up on time, work with other human beings.”

In addition to working part time at the CCSSC from 2008-15 as a planetarium and research assistant, McCarty twice interned 40 hours per week at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., first in fall 2013 and then in summer 2014.

“It amazed them how much of a graduate-level experience I was having as an undergrad,” McCarty said. “Since we don’t have a graduate program for astronomy (at CSU), we as undergraduates were taking on that graduate-level work. I really blew my fellow students away as well as the people I was working under with how much I was able to do there.”

NASA selected McCarty as one of two students to travel to Washington and lobby legislators on behalf of the internship program.

“So NASA thinks Cam’s pretty good at this stuff,” Cruzen said with a laugh.

‘Ring of fire’

McCarty earned a bachelor’s degree in Earth and space science from CSU in December 2014 and now is pursuing a doctoral degree in planetary sciences at the University of Tennessee.

McCarty twice captured an image that NASA featured on one of its websites. His May 10, 2013, photo was the Astronomy Picture of the Day the next day, showing a “ring of fire” on a solar eclipse in Australia, taken with Bartow and another CCSSC staff member, Michael Johnson.

“Cameron grabbed such a beautiful, perfect shot of the ring-of-fire effect, people just went bonkers for it,” Cruzen said. “Not only could you see the Sun in great detail, but you could actually see little solar prominences and solar storms on the surface in that tiny ring because of the clarity of Cameron’s image.”

McCarty’s Nov. 19, 2013, photo shows a composite of five images of Comet ISON, taken with the 20-inch Marshall Space Flight Center telescope in New Mexico.

In December 2015, his adviser at the University of Tennessee helped him earn a spot on the crew conducting the Mars Opportunity rover missions. McCarty is a scientist on the research team, taking turns operating the engineering cameras and the microscopic imager on the rover. And he performs his shift from his office computer at UT — the ultimate video game.

“Yes,” he said, “very cool.”

The NASA team plans for 8 hours what the rover will do the next day. On any given day, there are about 15 scientists working on the mission, McCarty said. It takes the 4-8 hours for the signal to reach the rover on Mars, depending on planet alignment, which averages a distance of 140 million miles.

When he sees images from Mars on his screen, knowing his commands took those photos, McCarty reminds himself he has “one of the coolest jobs in the world. It’s absolutely incredible. … You know you’re one of the first people on Earth to ever see that place on Mars. It’s just incredible.”

Other CCSSC interns who have gone on to succeed in space science include:

▪  Austin Caughley, recently offered the position of director of the Tenagra Observatory in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

▪  Zach Coker, director of the Midland (Texas) Planetarium.

▪  Christian Cruzen, master’s degree in aerospace engineering from Georgia Tech.

▪  John Hood III, a student in the master’s to Ph.D. in astronomy program at Fisk-Vanderbilt.

▪  David McMonagle, employed by Trackmobile, manufacturing trackless trains used by NASA.

Coker met his wife, Cheryl, at the CCSSC during an astronomy night, Cruzen noted. “There’s even love at the space science center,” he added, with a laugh.

Cheryl completed her master’s degree at Auburn University with a thesis on Martian geology, Cruzen said.

‘He’d be really proud’

McCarty was a seventh-grader at Blackmon Road Middle School when his father died in 2005. The CCSSC staff helped him through the grief.

“They were reaching out, always available, super helpful during that time,” he said.

“Cameron is like a son to me,” Cruzen explained. “He’s almost the same age as my own son, who also grew up here at the space science center.

“I can’t say enough about what Cameron’s accomplishments have been. Not only do we have these ties that go back so far, and with his father, who we just loved as a brother here, but also the magnitude of the things that Cameron accomplished. They’re amazing. He’s had tremendous accomplishments.”

So the boy whose father designed the terrain for the model Mars rovers at the CCSSC grew up to become a graduate student who photographs the real planet for NASA.

“It’s just really cool,” McCarty said.

Asked what his father would think of his achievements, McCarty said, “He’d be ecstatic. He’d be just through the roof. Yeah, he’d be really proud.”

When he visits the center now, McCarty still feels his father’s presence.

“There’s a connection,” he said, “but the science center is as much me as it is him as it is any one of us. I take that and I feel good about the things he put into the work, but I also see the work I’ve done and the work everyone else has done.”

Even while studying at the University of Tennessee, he met somebody who benefited from the center. One of his fellow grad students saw his CCSSC shirt and told him that her school’s field trip to the center from Athens, Ga., inspired her to become a scientist.

“That’s what the space science center did to me, and that’s what the space science center is helping do to the next generation of students,” McCarty said. “It’s an incredible feeling.”

McCarty’s career goals are doing Mars research for NASA full time or directing a planetarium. He looked at the students touring the CCSSC exhibits and said, “If somebody I inspired takes my job, I’ll be happy. It shows it’s carrying on.”

“Me too, by the way,” Cruzen told McCarty. “Keep that in mind.”

IF YOU GO

What: 20th anniversary celebration of the Columbus State University Coca-Cola Space Science Center.

When: July 16, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Where: At the center, 701 Front Ave., in downtown Columbus.

Admission: Free

Activities: Omnisphere Theater shows; tours of space shuttle artifacts, the Challenger Learning Center and the WestRock Observatory; sneak preview of the Space Shuttle Odyssey Theater; air rocket construction and flights; solar telescopes; science shows; robots, UV beads; vortex cannon; 3D printing; information about the quarter-scale prototype of the space shuttle coming to the CCSSC; giveaways of T-shirts and other souvenirs.

Featured guest: Carl McNair, brother of the late Ronald McNair, who was among the six NASA astronauts, along with teacher Christa McAuliffe, killed in the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion on Jan. 28, 1986. Carl McNair will speak about his brother’s legacy in the keynote address at 3 p.m. in the Omnisphere Theater. Free tickets for this event must be picked up in advance at the center, beginning July 7 at 10 a.m.

Book-signing: Carl McNair will sign copies of his book, “In the Spirit of Ronald E. McNair, Astronaut, An American Hero,” starting at 1 p.m. Copies of the book will be available for purchase in the center’s gift shop.

BY THE NUMBERS

Since the Columbus State University Coca-Cola Space Science Center opened in 1996, here’s a numerical description of its impact:

$20,000,000: Estimated total worth of NASA artifacts in the CCSSC gallery.

2,000,000: Approximate number of worldwide unique views of CCSSC webcasts of astronomical events. The Planewave 24-inch telescope in the center’s WestRock Observatory regularly observes deep space objects. Its photographs have been featured on Space.com, Spaceweather.com, Astronomy Picture of the Day and other NASA websites.

900,000: Approximate number of participants in the center’s programs and initiatives.

40,000: Approximate number of annual visitors.

25,000: Approximate annual number of students who participate in CCSSC activities from schools in the region, including more than half of them from underserved populations.

3,000: Approximate number of simulated “Missions to Mars” involving around 70,000 students.

15: Number of astronauts who have visited the CCSSC and participated in activities at the center.

ON DISPLAY

Displays in the Coca-Cola Space Science Center gallery include:

  • Main engine nozzle that flew into space on a space shuttle nine times
  • Console from the Kennedy Space Center’s Firing Room 3
  • Space shuttle computer
  • Leading edge of a space shuttle’s wing
  • Interactive plasma robot
  • Flight simulators
  • Mars rover models
  • Secret sound tube
  • UV-reactive rocks and minerals
  • Weather station
  • Infrared camera
  • Rotor motors station
  • Meteorites
  • Space shuttle landing simulator
  • Space Shuttle Odyssey Theater
  • And on the way is the only quarter-scale prototype of the space shuttle, which NASA recently awarded the CCSSC. The model was created to test the integrity of the space shuttles before they were produced at full scale.
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