NASA scientist Al Bowers stood in front of a photo of Saturn’s blue-green moon, Titan, and asked a group of special needs students to picture the seas of methane on its surface.
“How big is your imagination?” he asked the kids. “Can you imagine that?”
Bowers, chief scientist at the Neil A. Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, Calif., had a rapt audience – roughly a dozen sixth- through 12th-graders from Pathways Academy.
The private, nonprofit school at 1776 Montano NW enrolls 21 K-12 students with autism and other special needs.
Bowers stopped by on Tuesday morning as part of an eight-school educational tour meant to inspire the next generation to explore careers in science and engineering.
Over two days, Bowers will visit elementary, middle and high schools in Albuquerque and Rio Rancho, as well as the University of New Mexico and Central New Mexico Community College.
His presentation covers a variety of cutting-edge technologies, including Mars spacecraft, supersonic passenger jets and delivery drones.
“This is a plane you could work on,” Bowers told the students, pointing to an artist’s concept of the Low Boom Flight Demonstration Quiet Supersonic Transport, a $20-million project scheduled for test flights in 2021.
During his roughly 35 years at NASA, Bowers has helped many young scientists and engineers launch their careers – often through internships with the agency.
A number of Bowers’ students worked on the Cassini spacecraft’s landmark mission to Saturn and its moons. A few weeks ago, the Cassini made a scheduled plunge into Saturn, where it was vaporized by the high temperature and pressure, ending nearly 20 years of exploration.
Bowers also shared his personal journey to NASA, which began during his childhood in Southern California.
He discovered a love for airplanes and studied aeronautical engineering at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.
In 1982, he joined NASA’s graduate student research program and began rising through the ranks.
He was appointed chief scientist for the Armstrong Flight Research Center in 2014, a role that involves strategic planning for new research efforts, advanced aeronautical designs and space technologies.
Bowers’ top advice for the students: “If you get an opportunity to do something, take it.” Leandro Roybal, 16, said the presentation was inspiring.
The 11th-grader hopes to become an electrical engineer and said it was fascinating to learn more about NASA.
“He talked about a lot I hadn’t heard,” Roybal said.
Pathways Academy Principal Jim Hering said he was honored to have Bowers visit his school.
“We have students who have gone on to pretty interesting things, and the reason people discover those things is because of something like this,” Hering said.