HOLIDAY — Darian Spell thought he wanted to become an aerospace engineer.
That was before the 17-year-old River Ridge High junior took a trip in February to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala., where he was one of 304 students participating in the 2014 Honeywell Leadership Challenge Academy.
One day the students were put into a jet-fighter simulator that mimicked what it is like to fly an F18. It was career revision time for Spell.
“I decided I wanted to become a jet-fighter pilot after that experience,” he said.
New experiences came in waves at the Leadership Challenge Academy, which Spell attended the week of Feb. 21. The students, who came from 33 states and 38 countries, participated in mock shuttle missions, weightlessness training and scenario-based space walking missions. They designed, built and launched their own rockets, and met with scientists, engineers and astronauts to learn about those professions.
“Everything I did up there was a lot of fun,” Spell said.
One day he was strapped into a centrifuge machine.
“It’s supposed to have you experience 3.2 Gs, which makes your body feel 3.2 times heavier,” he said. “You try to lift your head and your feet. It’s a lot harder than you would think.”
Another activity had the intrepid students work in teams to design a heat shield, similar to those that protected space shuttles during re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. Their materials included tin foil and copper mesh.
In this experiment, the heat shield’s job was to protect a screw that was hot glued to a wooden dowel rod. A propane torch 6 inches away provided the heat source, and the goal was to see how long the heat shield could hold up until the glue melted and the screw fell off the dowel.
The torch was set to blast away for up to four minutes. Spell’s team’s shield protected the screw about two minutes and 30 seconds.
“That’s actually really good,” he said.
The Honeywell Leadership Challenge Academy, created in 2010, is open to students ages 16 to 18 who are the children of Honeywell employees. Spell’s mother works for the company.
The goal behind the academy is to build the students’ leadership skills through activities related to science, technology, engineering and math, the STEM studies that have become a major focus in education.
“These youth leaders are the problem solvers of the future, at home, at work and in our continuing journey into space,” Deborah Barnhart, CEO and executive director of the Space & Rocket Center, said in a prepared statement.
Spell said one of the biggest challenges came on the final day. The students took turns scaling a rock-climbing wall, about 60 feet tall.
“You had to trust your teammates to keep you held up,” Spell said. “They were holding you up by a rope. Sometimes the rocks would break off if you didn’t step on them correctly. It got kind of scary when you were just holding on with your hands.”