NASA engineers and scientists have flown on a No. 37 Squadron Hercules to a remote corner of the Northern Territory on a mission to inspire students and educators.

Flying by C-130J Hercules transport, members of NASA’s Jet Propulsions Laboratory (JPL) and the One Giant Leap Australia Foundation travelled to Arnhem Land from July 29-31.

The One Giant Leap Australia Foundation is a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) organisation with an emphasis on space science, technology, and exploration.

Working closely with NASA scientists and engineers, it aims to inspire students and educators to pursue the next generation of STEM careers.

After touring Sydney, Canberra and Wagga Wagga, a group of 17 members of the Foundation and NASA flew by Hercules from RAAF Base Richmond to Darwin.

“We do outreach into communities where often the opportunities aren’t there for teachers, the community and kids to understand that this is a huge thing for the country,” Mrs Carpenter said.

Air Force Cadets from No. 8 Wing in the Northern Territory chat to guests from NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory while flying aboard a No. 37 Squadron C-130J Hercules aircraft. Photo: Sergeant Ben Dempster

The following day, the Hercules flew five of the group to Nhulunbuy, Arnhem Land, while the remaining contingent flew by charter aircraft to the community of Maningrida.

Nhulunbuy is 700 kilometres east of Darwin, and has already attracted NASA’s attention as a future launch-site for rockets.

From 2020, NASA and Equatorial Launch Australia plan to launch sounding rockets on 15-minute sub-orbital flights to collect scientific data.

For One Giant Leap, travelling by RAAF Hercules to Nhulunbuy allowed them to deliver presentations at three schools and host a community forum.

The No. 37 Squadron Hercules crew sat in on the presentation to Nhulunbuy High School where they heard from Susan Finley – NASA’s longest-serving female employee.

She joined NASA’s JPL in 1958 as a human calculator, and her work helped send probes to the Moon ahead of the Apollo missions.

She subsequently became a systems engineer, and said she was unaware of the possibilities that lay ahead of her when she first joined.

“I didn’t even know there were such jobs like this,” Ms Finley said.

“There are millions of jobs out there and you have to just find the one you want.”

Ms Finley’s work at JPL has led her to become a systems engineer and the longest-serving employee with the organisation.

As a programmer, she has contributed to missions to send probes to Mars, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

“The best thing about my job right now is that I still learn something new every day,” Ms Finley said.

A team of Australian Defence Force Indigenous Liaison Officers, a Royal Australian Air Force C-130J Hercules crew, as well as members of One Giant Leap Foundation and guests from NASA and Jet Propulsions Laboratory, arrive at Nhulunbuy, Northern Territory. Photo: Sergeant Ben Dempster

Jackie Carpenter, founder and director of One Giant Leap Australia Foundation said it was important to bring STEM education to remote areas of Australia.

“We do outreach into communities where often the opportunities aren’t there for teachers, the community and kids to understand that this is a huge thing for the country,” Mrs Carpenter said.

“Without Air Force support we wouldn’t be here – I cherish this relationship and partnership with the Air Force, because working together we’re showing that we can achieve anything.”

The Foundation believes a one per cent increase in STEM workforce in Australia could generate a $57 billion boost to the economy, and Mrs Carpenter believes it would also benefit Air Force.

“We need problem solvers, thinkers, team players and leaders, and we need the community to understand the Air Force has got all of the potential for people to learn these skillsets,” Mrs Carpenter said.

“It creates networks, it builds relationships, it leads to collaboration – if we can encourage the community to see that this is an opportunity to take on board, Air Force will get the best of the best.”

Whilst No. 37 Squadron’s sojourns take place closer to Earth, the crew was keen to hear stories of space exploration, according to Wing Commander Ben Christie, the commanding officer of the Squadron.

“On this task, we had a range of different technical discussions, and never before has it been like this,” Wing Commander Christie said.

“These are people who build and operate robotic vehicles to go to the Moon or Mars, or operating the Cassini probe into deep space and crashing into Saturn’s atmosphere.”

The mission to Nhulunbuy also provided an opportunity to bring Indigenous liaison officers from RAAF Bases Darwin and Richmond, deepening the Squadron’s understanding of the Yolngu community.

“37 Squadron and the C-130J are perfectly suited to reaching out to Australia’s remote airfields, and engaging with Indigenous communities,” Wing Commander Christie said.