March 23, 2023

Meet Stella! Team Laika

I have never been one to give up easily and the Higher Orbits Go for Launch! program made sure it stays so! I have been amazed by astronomy since I was a young girl (my name, Stella, makes it a bit coincidental…). I was pleasantly surprised to learn about Higher Orbits, I have never seen anything like it. I enrolled in the Go for Launch! Program 3 years ago - and here I am today wearing a NASA launch guest pass. I am so thrilled that my team's project had the opportunity to participate and earned the privilege to fly to the International Space Station this year. This truly unique experience has led me to become even more immersed in the space industry by forming new connections and learning so much more.

I competed in two Go for Launch! programs. The first one was in Spring Grove, Illinois in 2020 and the other was at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida in 2022. My team won the Spring Grove chapter of the program but unfortunately did not move on from there. I was determined to win the opportunity for my project to be launched to the ISS so, I applied for a scholarship to go to Kennedy Space Center over the summer and was granted the opportunity to attend the program. At KSC, I met my wonderful team members, Daisy Li, Elena Zhu, and Joshua Suarez. We decided to name our team after the first dog that flew to space. Finally, Team Laika was created.

Getting the chance to attend the KSC chapter was such a surreal experience. I have never been to the Space Center before so getting to be on the site of the arguably most important space exhibits was so cool. Seeing artifacts of Apollo, rockets that have been sent to space, and so much more sparked my curiosity. We even met a former astronaut, Mr. Tony Antonelli. Not only did we meet him, but we worked alongside and collaborated. He was patiently offering input on how to improve our project. Other students, as well as I, became inspired by him and his work.

Throughout the time between the KSC program and the launch of SpaceX’s CRS-27, I continued to look forward to the launch. My team created a poster, designed a patch, and had numerous Zoom meetings to learn more about the process and perfect our project. Finally, the time came to start preparing for the launch. The original launch of the Dragon Capsule was scheduled for March 12th, however, that launch had been scrubbed. The launch was then moved to March 14th, and I could no longer be there due to a lack of transportation from/to Orlando airport (I live in Midwest). The next day I received an e-mail from Ms. Lucas offering to drive me to/from the airport! I will forever be grateful to Ms. Lucas because I really could not have attended without her.

I flew down to Orlando from Chicago and the whole way there I could not believe that this was real. We arrived at the same Kennedy Space Center hotel that I was staying in during the Go for Launch! program in June. All the fun memories flooded back - from working with my teammates late at night at the booths - to eating space-themed menu items at the rooftop bar. The next day became the most influential day of my life.

We attended a lunch where all the students from all four projects got the chance to introduce themselves and their projects. It was so eye-opening to meet students from all over the country and of different ages but come together with a passion for space and our projects. As we enjoyed our pizza (Pi day, 3/14), we got the chance to meet and talk to Mark Stuckey, an inspiring test pilot, and get our “space swag”. Before we knew it, it was time to leave for launch.

As we walked into the NASA office to receive our launch passes, everything started to become everything I hoped it would be. Getting on the bus and driving on NASA PKWY seeing behind-the-scenes of the magic that is rocket science. After taking so many pictures & videos our iClouds reached their limit and after attending a briefing and review of the content of the rocket, it was time for liftoff. Everyone chanting a countdown 5..4..3..2…BLAST OFF! And there it was, our project, on its way to space. A clear sky allowed us to see the ignitions of both stages and the ISS gliding in the night sky.

This opportunity is one I will never forget. I am so grateful to Higher Orbits for offering this amazing program to passionate students looking to get involved in STEM. Ms. Lucas, I could have never done this without you, and I will forever be in support of you and your amazing organization. A big thank you to Ms. Thompson and Mr. Antonelli for your support in this amazing journey. Higher Orbits is a truly “out-of-this-world” organization that creates and furthers passion and love for space exploration. How would I know? That's what Higher Orbits did for me, and I hope I always stay in “orbit”.

About the author

Stella Ristic is a sophomore at Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora, Illinois with a lifelong passion for STEM, specifically astrophysics. When she is not reading or working on her studies, she is playing volleyball or tennis. She enjoys spending time with family and friends and traveling to all different parts of the world. Her current future plans are to continue studying physics and hopefully become an astrophysicist or an aerospace engineer.

Stella Ristic

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