CCV-Montpelier student David Demasi is planning to finish his coursework next spring and graduate with a STEM studies degree in June. He hopes to continue his education at UVM and eventually complete a master’s in mechanical engineering. Chances are he won’t stop there. His sights are set on somewhere far beyond this state—beyond, even, this Earth: Demasi’s dream is to design sustainable life support systems for deep space exploration.
The Northfield, Vermont native has spent a lot of time thinking, reading, and talking about outer space. He has detailed hypotheses about counteracting Martian gravity, shielding astronauts from cosmic radiation, and achieving warp. He’s even been to NASA. (Interestingly, the actual travel to NASA’s Langley Research Center was Demasi’s first experience with flying—which, he says, “was really jarring. Especially when you’re looking out the window and at this side you see only sky, and at this side, the ground…you have a moment where you’re like ‘what did I do? Why did I do this?’”)
This fall, Demasi was chosen to participate in NASA’s Community College Aerospace Scholars (NCAS) program at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. He was selected for the five-day workshop, which represents the second phase of the NCAS program, based on his performance in the first phase. That initial section began in June, and involved 11 weeks of online work culminating in a research paper outlining a proposal for a Rover mission to Mars.
The NCAS program at Langley was Demasi’s chance to test some of his ideas in that proposal. Roughly 40 community college students from around the country attended, and Demasi worked with a team of nine other students to design a viable Rover prototype.
Teams used LEGO Mindstorm programming as the foundation for their projects. Demasi says each team had access to the same set of specific materials with which to build their Rovers, and they were required to work within a budget. Each team member was assigned a role—titles including engineers and accountants, but also social media managers—and his job was software engineer; he was tasked with creating a program that would make the Rover move. Daily competitions involved testing the Rovers’ abilities to complete simple tasks such as moving rocks and picking up Matchbox cars.
It turns out that the greatest challenge of the trip was not programming a robot, but working intensively with a group of strangers. Demasi says that on the first day personality clashes, decision-making, and disagreements contributed to a feeling of chaos among his team. But by day two, the team had come together and was working “like a well-oiled machine.”
Demasi says taking classes at CCV prepared him for success within a dynamic social environment. “I was a person who had been a stone cold introvert at the beginning,” he says of starting out at CCV. But, he adds, working with other students in and out of the classroom gave him valuable tools for group communication. “I’ve always been sort of a square peg that fits into a round hole everywhere. When I was there, working with my group, I didn’t feel like the odd man out,” he says. “I really fit in well.”
Demasi has a natural tendency to want to think outside the box and to work toward solving difficult problems. He’s been reading, researching, and experimenting since he was a kid. The first “robot” he ever built was improvised with a remote-controlled truck and a cardboard box.
He says his interest in understanding complex systems began with garden plants. He recalls his mother’s frustration with trying to grow blueberries. After a series of trials and errors, he discovered that the bushes would thrive when dressed with ash. He found that chicken manure makes the perfect fertilizer for asparagus.
Studying plants has implications for the kind of work he hopes to do in the future. “[I had] the realization that you can actually influence the environment in a very specific way based on what you know about how things decay and about how things run into the ground. And that applies to what I want to do.” In order to study and develop life support systems for deep space, he says, “you have to know how organisms function in a complex environment. You have to know about life systems. You have to know about microorganisms, you have to know about macroorganisms like trees, mosses, lichens, everything.”
Demasi would likely start out as an intern at NASA. And, he says having participated in the NCAS program gives him a big leg up. “They’ve mentioned that one of the things they look for when they look at internship applicants is whether or not they’ve gone through NASA programs already, and if you’ve gone through this program then you’re automatically above the pack,” says Demasi. “I actually did the math, and I had a 30 percent chance to get [to the NCAS program]. And I got there.”