Hercules takes one giant leap into remote NT community

NASA engineers and scientists have flown on a No. 37 Squadron Hercules

NASA engineers and scientists have flown on a No. 37 Squadron Hercules to a remote corner of Arnhem Land, on a mission to inspire students and educators.

Flying by C-130J Hercules transport, members of NASA’s Jet Propulsions Laboratory and the One Giant Leap Australia Foundation travelled to the Northern Territory over July 29-31.

The One Giant Leap Australia Foundation is a Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) organisation with an emphasis on space science, technology, and exploration.

Working closely with NASA scientists and engineers, it aims to inspire students and educators to pursue the next generation of STEM career fields.

After touring Sydney, Canberra and Wagga, a group of 17 members of One Giant Leap Australia Foundation and NASA flew by Hercules from RAAF Base Richmond to Darwin on July 29.

In Darwin, the crew took Australian Air Force Cadets from No. 8 Wing on a flight in the Hercules, also providing them with the chance to speak to NASA and One Giant Leap Australia Foundation.

The following day, the Hercules flew five of the group to Nhulunbuy in Arnhem Land, whilst the remaining contingent flew by charter aircraft to the community of Maningrida.

Nhulunbuy is 700 kilometres east of Darwin, and has already attracted NASA’s attention as a future launch-site for rockets.

From 2020, NASA and Equatorial Launch Australia plan to launch sounding rockets on 15-minute sub-orbital flights to collect scientific data.

For the One Giant Leap Australia Foundation, travelling by RAAF Hercules to Nhulunbuy allowed them to deliver presentations at three schools and host a community forum.

The 37 Squadron Hercules crew sat in on the presentation to Nhulunbuy High School where they heard from Susan Finley – NASA’s longest-serving female employee.

Ms Finley joined NASA’s Jet Propulsions Laboratory in 1958 as a human calculator, and her work helped send probes to the Moon ahead of the Apollo missions.

She subsequently became a systems engineer, and said she was unaware of the possibilities that lay ahead of her when she first joined.

“I didn’t even know there were such jobs like this,” Ms Finley said.

“There are millions of jobs out there and you have to just find the one you want.”

Ms Finley’s work at the Jet Propulsions Laboratory has led her to become a systems engineer and the longest-serving employee with the organisation.

As a programmer, she has contributed to missions to send probes to Mars, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

“The best thing about my job right now is that I still learn something new every day,” Ms Finley said.

Jackie Carpenter, founder and director of One Giant Leap Australia Foundation said it was important to bring STEM education to remote areas of Australia.

“We do outreach into communities where often the opportunities aren’t there for teachers, the community and kids to understand that this is a huge thing for the country,” Mrs Carpenter said.

“Without Air Force support we wouldn’t be here – I cherish this relationship and partnership with the Air Force, because working together we’re showing that we can achieve anything.”

The Foundation believes a one per cent increase in STEM workforce in Australia could generate a $57 billion boost to the economy, and Mrs Carpenter believes it would also benefit Air Force.

“We need problem solvers, thinkers, team players and leaders, and we need the community to understand the Air Force has got all of the potential for people to learn these skill sets,’ Mrs Carpenter said.

“It creates networks, it builds relationships, it leads to collaboration – if we can encourage the community to see that this is an opportunity to take on board, Air Force will get the best of the best.”

The success of One Giant Leap Australia Foundation’s work in Northern Territory has buoyed its vision of returning in future.

“The community’s on fire now about STEM careers, and everyone’s talking about ‘when are you coming back?’,” Mrs Carpenter said.

“It’s been an incredible few days and it’s inspired us even more to keep doing what we’re doing.”

Whilst 37 Squadron’s sojourns take place closer to Earth, the crew was keen to hear stories of space exploration, according to Wing Commander Ben Christie, Commanding Officer for 37 Squadron.

“Flight crews routine conduct technical discussions, however, this task presented a unique opportunity to cover some amazing experiences,” Wing Commander Christie said.

“These are people who actually build and operate robotic vehicles for the Moon or Mars exploration, or part of the team running the Cassini probe into deep space, around Saturn and  ultimately into Saturn’s atmosphere. It’s been an incredible insight.” 

The mission to Nhulunbuy also provided an opportunity to bring Indigenous Liaison Officers from RAAF Bases Darwin and Richmond, deepening 37 Squadron understanding of the Yolngu community.

“37 Squadron and the C-130J are perfectly suited to reaching out to Australia’s remote airfields, and engaging with local and Indigenous communities,” Wing Commander Christie said.