• Michael Staab, a former Cosmos-

    phere camper and counselor, returned to the Cosmos-

    phere as a presenter Saturday talking about NASA’s Cassini mission, for which he is a mission control engineer.

Former Cosmosphere camper is mission control engineer now, still on path to be astronaut

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Michael Staab used to visit the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, first as a camper, then as a counselor. On Saturday he returned as a mission control engineer for NASA's Cassini mission to Saturn.

Staab spoke about that mission, the background of which dates back before his birth. The initial study for what eventually became the Cassini mission was in 1983, he said. After it launched in 1997, it took nearly seven years to reach the ringed planet, but it has been orbiting Saturn for more than a decade, collecting all sorts of valuable scientific data.

Among the spacecraft's notable discoveries is Saturn's "E" ring, which is only visible from behind Saturn, looking back toward the sun. That ring is made mostly of water ice, ejected from a geyser near the south pole of one of Saturn's moons, Enceladus. That, in turn shows that there is liquid water below Enceladus' frozen surface.

Between the water on Enceladus, the mechanism that heats its subsurface ocean enough to remain liquid and organic chemicals detected in the spray from its geyser, the moon appears to have all of the basic building blocks for life, Staab said.

Cassini has dramatically outlived its original mission timeline, but NASA is preparing for its end, in which it will be sent into Saturn's atmosphere, where it will burn up to avoid contaminating any of the gas giant's moons which could sustain simple life.

Cassini will be crashed into Saturn in just under a year, on Sept. 15, 2017, Staab said. That will be done because the spacecraft, after nearly two decades since it launched, will run out of fuel.

After his presentation, Staab said he decided he wanted to become an astronaut when he was in third or fourth grade, watching the space shuttle launch that included John Glenn's last mission, decades after flying in the Mercury program.

After that, he started researching what all he would need to do to become an astronaut: what college degrees he would need, what classes he should take in high school to prepare for that, etc.

"I was planning things out very early," he said.

He loaded up on science and math classes in high school, even though he didn't particularly like math.

He earned a bachelor's degree in aerospace engineering from Wichita State University, then a master's degree in aerospace engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he now is working on a doctorate – which is still part of his continuing plan to become an astronaut.

Staab is optimistic about his prospects for traveling into space eventually.

He said he took several trips to the Cosmosphere as a child, but he was something of a latecomer to the Cosmosphere's camps. His first time as a camper was before his sophomore year in high school, but he still found time to attend several levels of camp before becoming a counselor.

"It reaffirmed this [working in the space industry] is exactly where I want to be," he said of those camps.

He said he appreciated the amount of one-on-one experience he got with knowledgeable counselors at the Cosmosphere.

Staab said because of his ambition to become an astronaut, he is biased in support of manned spaceflight, but he said robotic missions like Cassini are great for advancing the purposes of science, since they can go much longer and collect so much more data.

He said a planned mission to Jupiter's moon Europa is the most important current or planned robotic mission, as that mission will examine whether Europa has the building blocks necessary for simple lifeforms.

"The discovery of life beyond Earth would be the single greatest discovery in history," Staab said.