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How Star Wars Inspired a NASA Rocket Scientist

Star Wars: The Force Awakens opens this week. We ask a NASA rocket scientist how they were inspired by Star Wars and SciFi in general.

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SWE Leadership Summit Update

Star Wars: The Force Awakens opens this week in theaters nationwide. We’re asking SWE members to tell us how they were inspired by the film series and SciFi.

Born in 1981, I can no better remember the first time I saw Star Wars than the first time I heard Cinderella. Throughout my childhood, my parents or babysitters would play the one film or another on our VHS while I watched happily along on the floor. A collection of adventure tales I’d always known, but gradually comprehended more and more as I grew and the timeline revealed itself. Though the Force forever flowed through the universe, it was shocking when I realized that, unlike me, Luke hadn’t grown up knowing that Darth Vader was his father and a relief when I finally grasped the concept of a movie trilogy.

I come from a family of movie lovers, but we only stuck our toe into the science fiction realm when the story was powerful enough to attract all audiences. Yet the few we saw, including Star Wars, Short Circuit, and particularly Space Camp, were incredibly inspirational to me. My childhood dream was to be an astronaut and despite not knowing what an engineer did until high school, I’m now a trajectory analyst (aka rocket scientist) for NASA’s Launch Services Program. I’ve launched spacecraft to study black holes (NuSTAR), Mars (Curiosity rover in 2011 and InSight landing in 2016), the Earth, and more. I’ve sat on console during launch and even said “GO” as NASA Winds.

Twenty-some years after I first watched Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, I performed experiments on MIT’s SPHERES, three robotic spacecraft on board the International Space Station inspired by Luke’s floating training droid (aka “remote”) which fired blasts for him to deflect. My master’s degree examined how SPHERES could be used to gather data on fluid slosh in microgravity. Through the efforts of other researchers, the SPHERES SLOSH experiments began in early 2014. It still gives me chills to know that, 300 miles above our heads, astronauts once loaded commands that I wrote onto robots which then spun themselves up.

When the original trilogy “Special Edition” to theaters in 1997, it was a family affair and I was thrilled to see one of my favorite stories on the big screen. With the prequels, my generation experienced a Star Wars story in its first run in the theaters. I’m so excited that a third-generation will receive the joy of watching a brand new Star Wars story enfold with all of us that have been there before.

Written by:

Caley Burke

Launch Vehicle Trajectory Analyst

NASA Kennedy Space Center

We want to see your Star Wars experience on SWE’s social media channels! Share your best Star Warscostume or scenes from a Star Wars-themed party you’re attending! Or tell us how science fiction inspired your career in STEM. Use the hashtag #TheSWEForceAwakens – Tweet @SWEtalk, posts a picture to Instagram or shout us out on Facebook.

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