Purdue Space Day welcomes "Generation Mars" to campus

For more than 25 years, this annual event has offered children between third and eighth grade the opportunity to meet a NASA astronaut. They also get many hands-on experiences with aerospace-themed STEM projects.
Students show off some of their Purdue Space Day projects in 2019. Photo by Zoe Malavenda.
Students show off some of their Purdue Space Day projects in 2019. Photo by Zoe Malavenda.

After two out-of-the-ordinary years, Purdue Space Day (PSD) is returning for 2022 as a fully in-person event. The annual event, which Purdue has hosted for more than a quarter century, offers children between third and eighth grade many hands-on experiences with aerospace-themed STEM projects. They also get to meet a NASA astronaut.

This year’s theme, “Generation Mars,” highlights that these children are the generation most likely to be the first humans to step on that planet. PSD's spacefaring guest is Mark N. Brown (BSAAE ’73), who worked at Johnson Space Center as a flight-activities engineer for four years before he was selected for astronaut training. He completed that training in 1985 and flew on several space shuttle missions until he retired from NASA in 1993.

astronaut Charlie Walker standing on a stage. In the foreground, children's hands are raised to ask questions.
Astronaut Charlie Walker (BSAAE '71) visited for Purdue Space Day in 2019. Photo by Zoe Malavenda.

Purdue AAE Professor Michael Sangid, who is the faculty advisor for PSD, always looks forward to hearing the questions that kids ask the astronaut guest. “These range anywhere from what is their favorite space food to strategies for execution of space missions.  It’s really this interaction that’s unique to PSD. It’s always enjoyable each year,” he says.

Anyone can register for this free event; participants are selected by a lottery system. This year is showing a continued return to pre-2020 levels, with 682 children participating. Chell Nyquist, who is the Purdue Space Day program administrator, has arranged nine different activities for the various age groups.

“We are trying to provide participants with the opportunity to learn about space travel from an astronaut, to engage in hands-on STEM projects, and to visualize themselves on a college campus.  Our 350 volunteers gain leadership and extensive project management while serving as role models,” Nyquist says. 

Sangid says students and parents look forward to this event all year, and many travel from across Indiana to take part. It spreads awareness of aerospace as an exciting career path and brings future engineers to Purdue to get to know the campus and community.

A Purdue student helps a Purdue Space Day participant with her rocket experiment
A Purdue student helps a Purdue Space Day participant with her rocket experiment for PSD 2019. Photo by Zoe Malavenda.

Sangid believes it’s important that this event remain free.

“In order to provide an experience that everyone can enjoy, we want as few barriers for entry as possible. Significant fundraising activities go on year-round to ensure that we can continue to offer this program for free to all participants,” Sangid says. “It’s always enjoyable to see the large group of kids with smiles on their faces and having fun, while learning about space exploration and the accompanying STEM disciplines. There is nothing like it!”

Though this year’s PSD is in person again, the program is looking to secure funding to reprise a virtual Space Day in the spring. Sangid says they are able to reach a much broader audience with a virtual event: More than 4,200 students signed up in 2020, and video of the five-astronaut presentation that year has been watched more than 6,500 times.

“The virtual setting allowed us to reach an extended group across the US and internationally,” Sangid says. “This is why we feel that it would be important to continue providing a virtual opportunity to PSD, while still allowing us to focus on the in-person activity in the Fall.”

For more information, visit the Purdue Space Day website.


Story by Alan Cesar. Photos as credited.