Powerhouse Museum and Vandi Tompkins

On the morning of Thursday 27 February, the Powerhouse Museum’s Mars Lab team linked up with eight Australian high schools and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California to speak with Vandi Tompkins, driver of the Mars rover Curiosity.

There was quite a bit of excitement around this event. The Minister assisting the Premier on Western Sydney, Executive Director Public Schools for the Department of Education and Communities and the Powerhouse Museum’s director, Rose Hiscock, all gathered at Casula High School (one of the schools joining in the video conference) to watch the event unfold.

From here at the Powerhouse in the Mars Lab studio, the Mars Lab team chatted with Vandi and invited young people at the participating schools to ask her some questions. Vandi told us about the latest news on Curiosity, having recently crossed Dingo Gap, a region on Mars named after a place in Western Australia, and heading over to a steep rocky region called Kimberley (also named after an Australian region!).

Vandi spoke about her dreams as a young girl in India to one day work in a space related job, to studying robotics and finally ending up working for NASA. She shared some of the maps and planning tools they use to prepare for each drive, showed us images of Curiosity and told us about what she does in her free time – drive motorcycles and rock climb (you know, the usual!)

One of the most memorable questions came from a year ten student: “What if I want to pursue a career in science and am not smart enough”. It made us realise what an important role we play at the Powerhouse Museum in building confidence and career paths for young people, and of course anyone smart enough to want a career in science has taken the first step!
Vandi then connected to our Museum’s Mars Lab rover, Mawson, via the internet and drove Mawson around the Mars Yard. She performed a few manoeuvres as she giggled excitedly saying how much fun it was to drive a rover in Australia through a web browser. She made a few comparisons between Mawson and Curiosity, saying that many of the functionalities were very similar.

The experience was a truly inspiring and memorable one, not only for the lucky young people who participated in the video conference link up, but also for everyone all over the world who watched the event live online as well.

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