FREEPORT – Freeport native Alec Mangan, 17, is still brimming with excitement that his team was one of five finalist teams in a NASA Exploration Design Challenge earlier this year.
Mangan's team didn't win, but the experience solidified his desire to pursue an engineering-related career.
Forty-six high school teams across the nation were part of the competition, including Mangan's team from Aurora-based Illinois Math & Science Academy, where he is a junior.
The goal was to design radiation shields for the Orion spacecraft. Orion is NASA's next human spaceflight vehicle destined for astronaut voyages beyond Earth and will launch for the first time later this year from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Mangan and his five teammates spent between 200 and 300 hours on the project since August. The finalist teams attended the USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, D.C., on Friday for the official announcement of the winner. Even though he didn't win, Mangan and his family plan to attend the launch of the Orion spacecraft in December.
"It's really an awesome experience," Mangan said. "... It's still an awesome opportunity and it's really cool to look at all the teams and think, 'Wow, we really did well.'"
The teams were tasked with designing a shield to protect 10 radiation detectors on the spacecraft. Groups had to submit a notebook of diagrams and instructions explaining their design process.
Participation in the competition will look good on each team member's college application because most hope to study aerospace engineering or physics. Mangan hopes to work in experimental engine development after college.
"It's just mind-blowing to think that NASA knows our son's name," said his mother, Karen Sample. "We always knew he was smart and had potential, but you never think that NASA would know his name at 17."