Socorro, NM: "Drinking water from a fire hose" is the perfect way to describe my six weeks at the Summer Science Program (SSP). The innovative hands-on approach where I used telescopic observations, measurements and computer software to determine the orbit of an asteroid, prompted me to reach higher than I thought possible.
The Summer Science Program was launched in 1959 in response to America's emerging space program. Every summer, 30 sophomores and juniors from around the world spend six weeks immersed in math, physics and astronomy.
It is hard to imagine a more eclectic group. We came from 14 states, and I did not meet a single person I would consider "normal." Indeed, many of their interests seemed almost paradoxical and in utter defiance of stereotypes. I met Mireille, a cheerleader and tennis player who wants to enter the Air Force, and Sean, a lacrosse player who asked his mom to send him homemade cookies and the Wall Street Journal. Dinner conversation included passionate debates over political issues and equally intense discussions about "The Simpsons." The diversity made for a vibrant community, where a bunch of misfits suddenly fit in. With this new unity, we combined our talents to accomplish tasks that seemed as unreachable as the stars themselves.
The biggest task, of course, was the orbit determination project, the core of the program. In teams of three, we guided an eight-inch refractor telescope to scan the New Mexico skies. Once we found our specific asteroid, we took a 10-minute exposure. My teammates and I did this observation eleven times during the two weeks, once every three nights. We took a total of 13 exposures to obtain the necessary three usable exposures that were in focus and not scratched.
Observing sessions were not all work; in fact, most nights were also spent watching shooting stars, scaring other teams, and memorable 1 a.m. trips to Denny's (making up for the cafeteria's not-so-fabulous dinner).
During the day, Dr. Hammergren, the director of the Doane Observatory in Chicago and Dr. Russell, a physics teacher and recent graduate of MIT, packed a semester of calculus, physics, astronomy and computer programming into 140 hours of lectures. Discouraged at first by the marathons through endless labyrinths of topics that might as well have been Greek, I began to doubt myself. I was surprised to find that many of my peers, who had already aced the BC Calculus exam as sophomores or juniors, actually felt the same way. But as the "fire hose" sprayed on, I resolved that I would try my best to follow the next day's lecture. I poured all my concentration into every variable and every formula. And with a worn-out wrist and eraser, I finally got it. I realized that, with enough focus and determination, I could learn at a rate I'd thought impossible.
The best part of the program was not the incredible amount of academics, but the interaction with my peers. Every Saturday night we would watch at least three movies, one after another, until 5 a.m., packed like sardines in a too-small room. We took a field trip to the Very Large Array near Socorro where "Contact" was filmed. We saw the majestic Pueblo ruins and walked to a golf course to watch spectacular Fourth of July fireworks. To combat one day's sweltering heat (it was usually over 100), the professors cancelled lectures and staged an elaborate water fight against students.
I knew nothing about astronomy before SSP and didn't need to. I cannot think of a better foundation for a science program that incorporates many fields of science - physics, chemistry and biology - and has a certain romantic, or idyllic, appeal. There is nothing that can describe the experience of gazing at thousands of stars in the enchanted sky, with absolutely no light pollution to diminish their gleam.
At SSP, I gained the invaluable experience of strengthening my academic skills and relished the atmosphere of my down-to-earth, self-motivated peers. During the last week of the program we stayed up day and night, savoring each moment. Six weeks may seem like a small part of one's life, but the Earth is also a small part of the universe. To spend this time with the same people and share their struggles and successes left us all close, and we still keep in touch.
SSP prompted me to reach higher - not in competition, but in collaboration - not to prove myself to the world, but to challenge myself. The once-in-a-lifetime experience I had at SSP showed me that, truly, the sky's the limit.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.