HOUSTON -- Bonnie Dunbar has a Ph.D. in mechanical/biomedical engineering, spent a total of 50 days in space on five shuttle missions (two on Shuttle Columbia) in a 28-year NASA career and is now the Director of the Aerospace Engineering Graduate Program and SICSA Space Architecture at the University of Houston.
But in addition to her STEM-focused curriculum this fall semester, Dunbar assigned her students a compelling piece of space fiction: Andy Weir's "The Martian."
"I wanted them to understand that there are still challenges and goals to be achieved out there, and it requires a skill set that they're acquiring as young engineers," Dunbar said of both the science and inspiration in the pages of the novel and the now blockbuster movie starring Matt Damon.
"I'm teaching the students if it's going to happen," she said of a fiction-turned-fact real-life mission to Mars in NASA's future plans, "they will make it happen."
Weir's novel, firmly rooted in space fact, spins the fictional tale of an astronaut in the not-too-distant future left marooned on the red planet with only his scientific knowledge, wit and engineering creativity to survive. Director Ridley Scott's adaptation relied heavily on NASA input to make the science and scenarios as realistic as possible.
Dunbar, who says she also saw the movie in its opening weekend, gives it her approval as a potential engineering teaching tool and a worthy dose of inspiration for her engineering students.
"I hope that we have an educated work force to do it," she said of her generation of students. "But it will happen," she said of an eventual mission to Mars.
"The exciting thing is that I think we will send humans in the near future to Mars," said John M. Grunsfeld, Associate Administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA in recent comments after the announced discovery of flowing water on Mars. "There'll be scientists looking for signs of life. And also to be able to live on the surface and the resources are there."
NASA is targeting the 2030s for a Mars mission. Experts admit there is much work to do in a relatively short amount of time: tackling the problems of radiation protection for astronauts, developing new propulsion technologies, upgrading life support systems for missions that will last months and generating the political and financial will to keep the quest moving forward.
But to critics who say it's too big a target, too much beyond current technologies, Dunbar recounts the dreams that began when she was just 9 years old. Since her first thoughts of pursuing a career in space, astronauts have set foot on the moon, lived and works for months at a time in the International Space Station, and there are multiple robots and rovers at work on the Martian surface right now.
"We're so much closer now to being there than when I was a young kid dreaming about it that it's within our grasp," Dunbar said,
Within the grasp, she believes, of her students: fueled by the future of science, engineering and math and motivated by a popular piece of fiction to reach for the stars -- and the red planet.