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MACC student set to work with NASA on Mars mission

Sunday, January 23, 2011 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 12:54 p.m. CST, Sunday, January 23, 2011
Moberly Area Community College student Tim Terrell talks Friday in his home about the different aspects of participating in the NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars Program. Over the next three months, Terrell will learn what it takes to plan a mission to Mars.

COLUMBIA — At 39, Tim Terrell is usually one of the older students in classes at Moberly Area Community College. But, he thinks his life experiences — serving in Afghanistan and Iraq before working as a third-generation electrician — have set him up to be a better student.

In the midst of pursuing three associate's degrees, the Columbia resident will participate in the NASA National Community College Aerospace Scholars program, where he will present his designs for a land base on Mars that will utilize solar panels.

Terrell said he is one of 230 participants who will travel in April or May to the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Although Terrell had no experience in aerospace before coming across the program on the MACC website, he said his experience as an electrical contractor in Columbia and working with solar panels and environmentally friendly technologies has enabled him to think outside the box when devising plans for a base on Mars.

“Most people take for granted being able to walk into a room and having the ability to switch on the lights or turn on the water,” Terrell said. “In the military, you are used to sometimes not having lights or clean water, and you learn to appreciate those things.”

The NASA program, which launched in 2010, gives community college students the opportunity to spend three days at the Johnson Space Center or at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., according to NASA.

As part of the program, Terrell said students are put in a hypothetical scenario to present a detailed Mars mission to Congress. For the next semester, Terrell will work on defining goals for the project, creating a budget, coordinating the launch date and designing plans.

“You’re given a lot of data, you’re able to contact NASA engineers and read the NASA site,” Terrell said. “You can do all these different things, but it’s still hard to think outside of what engineers had already thought of and what’s already been done. That’s intimidating.”

Terrell enrolled at MACC in 2008 to give himself greater flexibility to work as a professional engineer in numerous states and eliminate the requirement of having to pass a state electrician’s exam. He is also pursuing three associates’ degrees in general liberal arts, engineering and business marketing and management.

"Some kids will call me grandpa, but that’s fine with me," Terrell said.

Jeff Sapp, who worked with Terrell in 2001 when they were both electricians in Columbia, said Terrell has been interested in furthering his education.

“Him going back to school wasn’t a surprise to me,” Sapp said. “I was actually more surprised it took him as long as it did for him to go back.”

Terrell said he plans on enrolling at MU in 2013 to pursue a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering with a minor in computer engineering.

During the three-day visit to Houston, where his designs will be put to the test, he hopes to learn a lot from the creative engineers at NASA.

Although Terrell said he would be on top of the world if his plans ever became a reality, he has no desire to travel to Mars.

"I'm a Missouri boy, it's my home," Terrell said. "My exploration days are behind me."


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