Seventeen-year-old Payton Kelly-Van Domelen, a homeschooled student from Sun Prairie, has been selected for a prestigious Student Enhancement in Earth and Space Science (SEES) summer internship.
Working with NASA is nothing new for Payton, as she is already working on sending her sixth experiment into space.
“I haven’t heard of anyone that has sent that many experiments to space, regardless of age,” Payton’s mother Cheryl Kelly-Van Domelen said.
At only 13, Payton won the University of Wisconsin’s crystal growing contest, which was open to all students. She was a part of a team that led a project dealing with cupric sulfate pentahydrate and potassium dihydrogen phosphate compounds used to grow and preserve crystals in space, because they don’t have the same impurities on earth. After a few days of growth, she directed the astronauts how to remove the solution from the crystals to preserve them, and the mission was successful. She ultimately won the Wisconsin crystal contest three years in a row.
According to her mom, Payton’s speaking skills are as good as her intelligence.
“She got to present her findings from crystals at the International Space Station Research and Development Conference in San Francisco,” Cheryl said. “She’s given two presentations at the Kennedy Space Center and she spoke at the NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.”
The internship, held at The University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Space Research, consists of students collaborating with scientists and engineers to conduct authentic research from data received from NASA’s earth observing satellites. The internship begins remotely and transitions in person for two weeks, starting July 16.
The selected students will design Mars habitats, engage in lunar exploration and analyze images from the International Space Station. Almost 1,100 applications were received, and Payton was one of 92 students selected.
“She is going to be on the Mars exploration mission design team,” Cheryl said. “She gets to help design living quarters and how to get to space. She’s already working on modules every day that NASA sent to her. There are also multiple books they have to read.”
Soon, she will be meeting with the rest of her team of six remotely to prepare for the two weeks in person. In those two weeks, students will field investigations, conduct hands-on activities, attend presentations by NASA scientists and engineers and work on various NASA missions.
Cheryl has always known that her daughter was exceeding expectations at a young age. She had to make a difficult, but right decision to open the door for Payton’s success.
“We started homeschooling right after third grade,” she said. “I didn’t take it lightly. It took me a few years to make the commitment. Many people told me she would turn out weird, but it was the best decision that we made.”
In 2023, she will be part of a team that sends lunar satellites to the moon surface that they will get to program themselves, called the GLEE Project. The data found from their satellite will be sent back to earth for public observation.
She is soon to enter her senior year, and she already has 40 college credits. She hopes to get into Embry-Riddle Aeronautical, a private university focused on aviation and aerospace in Daytona Beach, Florida.
Despite all of her early-life success, Payton is very mature and humble.
“I don’t think she has realized what she’s done,” Cheryl said. “She was 13 and sent experiments to space.”
Payton has aspirations to become an Aerospace physiologist or biomedical engineer. She plans to analyze data on astronauts in space, studying changes in astronauts and how to help preserve the health of astronauts on long flights.
NASA’s Texas Space Grant Consortium is in collaboration with the UT Center for Space Research and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to sponsor this nationally competitive educational training for students. The purpose of the NASA earth science program is to develop a scientific understanding of Earth’s system and its response to natural or human-induced changes, as well as improve predictions of climate, weather and natural hazards.