Sandy Athey, a 37-year-old special education teacher at Northside Elementary School in Chapel Hill, was picked by NASA to witness the April 18 launch of the Falcon 9 rocket. Dubbed a “social media influencer” by the space program, she talks here about her experience, her students and life on Mars.
Q: What was the coolest thing you saw while you were at Cape Canaveral, Florida?
A: The Launchpad 39b, where the first astronauts to Mars will launch from. We thought we’d just get to see it, but we got to stand on it and see the crawler tracks, flame trench and structures.
They said, "This launchpad will be the last thing on Earth the Mars astronauts see because they’re not coming back." They’re aiming for 2030 to send the first astronauts.
Q: How many others attended the launch as part of NASA Social, which provides opportunities for the space program's social media follows to visit and learn more?
A: There were 40 other “influencers” invited; more than 400 applied. The Chapel Hill-Carrboro Public School Foundation gave me a grant for $500 to cover all my expenses.
Q: When you were growing up, you said you either wanted to be an astronaut, work for NASA or witness a launch. How did your passion in space exploration begin?
A: When I was 7 or 8, I was living in Birmingham, and my parents took me and my younger brother to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. I just fell completely in love with the whole concept of people going into space and space exploration.
I think it was the astronauts, the idea of the sheer courage and bravery of the people going into space. Even at 8 years old, I think I understood how ... these people risk their lives in the pursuit of knowledge, science and learning.
Q: You stumbled upon NASA Social by accident and were rejected the first time you applied to attend a launch. What happened?
A: I was scrolling through Twitter one night, and I found it at 10 p.m. on a Sunday and the application was due by midnight. I just knew that without having the time to research it that I probably wouldn’t make a good enough impression. I got rejected, but I’m not one to give up. A few days later, I saw a second tweet for another event.
Q: The Falcon 9 rocket carried TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) into space. What is the mission?
A: It’s a satellite that has four high-powered cameras on the top, and it’s going to go in a large orbit around the earth and the moon and look for planets that could potentially have sustained life at some point, or may sustain life now or in the future.
Q: What surprised you the most about the launch?
A: How much we were able to see and do. They showed us a 3D printer that will pull metal from Martian soil and print the 3D walls that will shelter the first Martian colonists. Those are the kind of mind-blowing things they’re working on.
Q: You teach special education at Northside Elementary in Chapel Hill. How have you shared this experience with students?
A: The students I work with are more on the moderate to profound disability level — a lot of non-verbal. For most of my students, the excitement comes from the launch video. They love watching the countdown and seeing the pictures because you can see the fire and the smoke. We did a unit beforehand on the solar system.
Q: Will you be able to share your experience with other students, too?
A: Yes, that’s one reason I created a Facebook page. There were parents and students from our school and even other schools who have joined since I’ve been back. I’ve been posting articles, pictures and videos as I find them. I want to encourage kids in my school and across my district to look into NASA and STEM careers. I’m working with our technology facilitator at the school to possibly make a video.
Q: What do you think is the biggest challenge the space program faces?
A: Lack of awareness. That challenge is the reason the NASA Social program exists. I think people think there’s not much going on, but they’re doing all kinds of things with deep space exploration, going to Mars, going back to the moon. It was the experience of a lifetime.
Sandy Athey — Tar Heel of the Week
Born: Nov. 9, 1980, in Birmingham, Alabama
Work: Special education teacher at Northside Elementary School in Chapel Hill
Education: Degree in special education from Illinois State University
Fun fact: She has run 12 half-marathons and one full marathon.