NASA makes deep impact on Baltimore brothers as lab invites them to crash party

Published 9/27/2022 5:37 p.m. EDT, Updated 9/28/2022 11:28 a.m. EDT

From left: Sade Newson, 32, Noah Newson, 6, Leland Melvin, 58, Aden Newson, 3, pose for a quick photo after opening remarks at the DART Impact Event held at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, in Laurel, MD. Noah, an aspiring scientist, is shy meeting Leland Melvin the engineer, and retired NASA astronaut.

In a swift swoop, former NASA astronaut Leland Melvin picked up young Aden, who gazed at the various patches on the man’s collared blue jumpsuit. Noah, Aden’s older brother, watched the encounter as dad and mom snapped a picture.

The family joined the elite astronaut, scientists, the European and Italian space agencies and a mob of media for an evening in Laurel to watch a NASA spacecraft collide with a 525-foot asteroid.

The Double Asteroid Redirection Test, known as DART, is one of the first missions aimed at changing the path of an asteroid by slamming into it at 14,000 mph. Scientists will use results to develop future protections against asteroids that are potentially harmful to Earth. DART was built and operated by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory at the direction of NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office.

The West Baltimore family was invited to the private event after an Applied Physics Laboratory employee’s wife sent them a Baltimore Banner story about Aden and Noah’s summer adventure, set up by their dad, as a make-believe astronaut and air marshall. Geoff Brown, chief of strategic and external communications at the Applied Physics Laboratory, credits his wife Stacey for flagging “the inspiration that Paul was creating for his kids.” Brown thought the event would be a great way to build on the initial adventure.

“I think we all want to create those moments for kids,” Brown said.

The boys’ dad, Paul Newson, told Melvin about how he created the outer space adventure. In August, he spent hours cutting down a portion of an overgrown, vacant field in Reservoir Hill to create a launch pad for the boys and their 6-foot-tall cardboard spaceship.

The event gave Noah and Aden an experience like the one their dad encouraged them to create in their imaginations. Letting youths like the two brothers witness a historic NASA mission is important because it highlights access and opportunities that introduce them to what’s possible in different branches of science, Melvin said.

“Representation does matter,” he said.

The spacecraft, with its cubed center and two large, roll-out solar arrays, launched in November 2021 to make its way to an asteroid system nearly 7 million miles away. The asteroid Didymos, Greek for “twin,” is 2,500 feet in diameter and is orbited by a moonlet, Dimorphos.

Using a method called kinetic impact, DART collided with Dimorphos autonomously on Monday at 7:14 p.m. Scientists expect to find that the impact carved out a crater, hurled streams of rocks and debris into space, and altered the asteroid’s orbit, according to the Associated Press.

“Space is full of moments … [DART] is a very different phenomenon,” said Bobby Braun, head of Applied Physics Laboratory’s Space Exploration Sector.

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Before the event, Paul Newson created a flipbook with Noah illustrating a spacecraft hitting an asteroid. He wanted his son to better understand what was going to take place. The boys didn’t wear their astronaut and air marshall outfits for the evening and instead trailed their mom, Sadé, and dad through the crowds wearing white button-ups and slacks.

Noah came face-to-face with Bill Nye the Science Guy during a meet-and-greet before the DART impact and the quirky scientist pointed out that, like him, both boys wore bow ties. Sadé said there was much for the boys to digest, but Nye’s remarks about taking care of the Earth and each other seemed to resonate with Noah, who wants to be a paleontologist.

“His ideas about who he wants to be aren’t abstract,” she said about Noah.

The family visited blue-tented displays that lined the grassy lawn on the campusand looked at intricate Lego displays, large telescopes, and robots similar to the ones in a book Noah has at home.

Noah and Aden gravitated to the simpler aspects of the event: laughing at their reflections on the shiny Applied Physics Laboratory building exterior; sipping on juice boxes; eating crab balls, vegetable pot stickers and white frosted cookies; and running around with other kids on the lawn as the sun set.

Minutes before DART made impact, Noah found a spot on the grass in front of a big-screen television that displayed NASA’s live dashcam footage. In true little-brother fashion, Aden followed and nestled next to him. As the spacecraft inched closer to the asteroid, which no one had ever seen before, the monitor displayed its grayish color and prickly surface riddled with shards of rock. Noah quickly mouthed “Go, go, go.”

The screen faded to red, signaling the impact, and a camera from the control room showed the DART crew cheering, high-fiving and hugging. Green and red fireworks erupted from the rooftop of a building. Noah and Aden were initially alarmed by the fireworks but then jumped around on the lawn, joining in the excitement.

“From a cardboard box to the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory … This is epic,” a grinning Paul Newson said.

As expected, DART was destroyed on impact, but in the coming days and weeks scientists will use telescopic observations to determine how Dimorphos’ orbit was impacted.

As the cheering continued, the Newsons made their way to hear closing remarks from NASA and Applied Physics Laboratory. After stressing DART’s historic milestone achievement, Melvin paused, looked out to the crowd and asked who wanted to be a scientist.

“I do,” Noah said. “I do.”

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