Teen’s dreams soar in elite NASA program

Pinewood rising senior Katie Smoak (center) is one of 45 female students nationwide to be selected to NASA’s Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math High School Aerospace Scholars (WISH) Program. She is pictured with fellow Pinewood students Emily Pelcher and Matti Easterday and Guidance Counselor Brendan Diffley at Joint Base Charleston’s Women in Aviation event.


Until about six months ago, Summerville teen Katie Smoak hadn’t much considered the final frontier.

Then her guidance counselor at Pinewood Preparatory School suggested Smoak apply for a special NASA program for girls interested in science, technology, engineering and math.

Not only did the 17-year-old junior get in, she excelled. This week Smoak is the only South Carolinian among a select group of 45 Women in STEM High School (WISH) Aerospace Scholars in Houston for an all-expenses-paid week of learning at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

That’s right, the home of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s astronaut training headquarters and Mission Control for its manned expeditions.

Remember when Tom Hanks said “Houston, we have a problem”? This week, the real-life version of that command center will be hosting Smoak and a few dozen of her brainy peers.

Pretty rarefied air for a child of the Lowcountry, even one whose parents are engineers — dad David at SPAWAR, the high-tech Navy installation in North Charleston, and mom Beth at defense contractor Scientific Research Corp.

“I’ve never even thought about NASA and stuff until this spring,” Smoak said last week. “I’m looking forward to talking to the women.”

The road to Houston officially began in January when Smoak, and more than 300 other girls from around the country, started the online component of the WISH program.

Among other assignments, they completed eight modules over the course of the spring semester, Smoak recalled, each with a “math problem that was mostly physics-related.” For each module, the girls also weighed in via an online forum.

“One time we had to design an orbiter that would orbit Mars and we had to describe what its purpose would be and how we would build it,” Smoak said. “And then we had to draw a scaled module and photocopy that and turn it in.”

Based on their performance on the modules, the program administrators picked 90 of the best WISH applicants for the in-person component in Texas. Smoak, who left town Sunday, is part of the first contingent. The other group’s session starts Sunday.

Last week, for the first time in four years, the space agency named eight new astronauts. Half were women, including Christina M. Hammock of Jacksonville, N.C., which was appropriate since Tuesday was the 30th anniversary of the launch of the first American woman in space, Sally Ride.

Those newly minted space travelers will help lead the first human mission to an asteroid, and then on to Mars, according to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, a Columbia-born South Carolina native.

So with that in mind, what will NASA have Smoak and her cohorts working on in Houston this week? “They told us that we’re going to be touring Johnson Space Center in the morning, and then in the afternoon/evening time, there are groups of 11 of us, and we’re working on a Mars rover, specifically talking about radiation and how radiation affects a rover.”

Again, this isn’t your father’s space camp.

Before this year, Smoak acknowledged, she had doubts about the cost-benefit of NASA, spending billions of dollars on outer space when there are so many people and problems on Earth. But her perspective has since changed. “There’s so much stuff that we learned in space, that without it ...” Smoak said, pausing. “I just take for granted how much stuff we learned.”

“How to better grow plants for mass production, keeping costs down,” she continued, also citing better toothpaste developed in the International Space Station and ways for making microwaves safe.

“It’s good for the economy, honestly,” she said. “I agree with keeping it.”

A lifelong Pinewood student who will graduate next spring and hopes to go to Clemson University, Smoak has been keeping busy this summer. In addition to running for school during the academic year, she swims and coaches a young swim team. She was at a church camp in Daytona Beach, Fla., last week, and next week will return to her little swimmers.

“I’m missing them,” she said.

Which begs the question: Any plans to take a break and just do nothing at some point?

Yeah, Smoak joked, she’ll “take a nap in the pool.”

Reach Brendan Kearney at 937-5906 and follow him on Twitter at @kearney_brendan.