It started out as a joke.
The students at Northwest Indian College on the Lummi Reservation near Bellingham were launching little rockets made from recycled water bottles as a way to do some hands-on science.
Computer science teacher Gary Brandt says calling it a “space center” was just something one of the students came up with.
“And he said, ‘I called us the Northwest Indian College Space Center,'” Brandt said. “I was kind of dumbfounded, basically. And I said, 'OK, let’s do that. That’s kind of grandiose. Let’s really play it up.’”
The joke was funny because this was just a tiny, two-year college, with no engineering program. Getting into space was the last thing on the minds of these students; they were just trying to escape poverty. Next thing they knew, NASA was calling them up.
It was beyond their wildest dreams. Christian Cultee, a student there, grew up nearby.
“My uncle runs a fish hatchery up here,” Cultee said. “My biggest fear here, my whole life, was just kind of being trapped here on the reservation.”
Another student, Amy Irons, managed to get off the reservation in Kitsap County where she lived and worked as a line cook for 10 years.
“I did have the passion to be a chef one day,” she said. “As soon as that faded I was just burned out and just working for the check.”
At Northwest Indian College, they stumbled into another passion – launching pressurized water-bottle rockets for fun. Every time someone launched a rocket, students gathered to watch.
They read online about more advanced rocketry programs in other schools, but those programs were really expensive. One day, teacher Gary Brandt broke down and bought three rocket kits anyway.
Not long after their first real rocket launch, Brandt got a phone call – from NASA.
“She introduced herself and said, ‘I didn’t know you were big enough to have a space center,’” he said. “And I, of course, choked and chortled and told her the story of what happened. And she said, ‘Be that as it may, you are doing what we want, and that’s to get underrepresented students involved in science, technology, engineering and math programs.’”
NASA would give them $5,000 a year for three years. It was enough to get them to take themselves seriously.
The students began entering competitions. Each year, NASA organized a different challenge.
Such as, reach a specific altitude and take scientific readings from the atmosphere. Or use a robot to collect a soil sample, put the sample in a rocket, and prepare the rocket for launch – all with no help from humans.
Big schools like MIT and Vanderbilt University came to the competitions with fancy equipment: digital scales, specialized aluminum parts and fancy servo motors.
Northwest Indian College used discarded computer parts, bubble levels and mouse traps.
Irons said they worked with what they had.
“It comes down to sometimes, ‘Oh, do you have a paperclip, I need to put a paperclip in here to make sure this is secure,’” she said. “And so, honestly, it’s just whatever you have that works, you need to use it.”
And it did work.
That resourcefulness, borne out of poverty, has helped the Northwest Indian College Space Center outperform some schools with far greater resources. That gumption is what caught NASA’s attention.
Mamta Nagaraja, an engineer with the space agency, said these students have qualities NASA would love to have on a team.
“Being able to have somebody on the team who is resourceful will give you that perspective,” she said.
“‘Well, we could do it this way, and we don’t really need to buy that product because it’d be quite easy to reuse this product that we have from this past mission and it’s not being used currently, it’s just sitting in a box.’”
Cultee has interned with NASA for the last two years. And he’s returning next year. He’s not thinking about working in his uncle’s fish hatchery anymore.
“The internship that I’m getting this summer will have to do with software development and communicating with satellites,” he said.
Amy Irons wants to be a marine biologist. But she’ll bring her rocketry skills to that profession.
Irons: “I’m hoping to get into underwater rovers and use underwater rovers to explore the sub-tidal areas. Which I would use for data collection.”
Now people are starting to take the space program at the Northwest Indian College seriously.
But for Brandt, the biggest reward is seeing his students take themselves seriously.
“It’s just an amazing feeling for me to see the look of competence,” he said. “The look of self-esteem. And when I see them talking with these big engineering graduate-level students from Vanderbilt and these things on an absolutely equal basis – you can see how it makes me feel.”
Other tribal colleges are catching rocket fever too.
This month, they competed in the fifth annual First Nations Launch, a competition just for tribal teams.
This story was first published April 30, 2015.
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