After Mancos Girl Scout Troop 24652 visited the Denver Aquarium in 2016, they enjoyed themselves so much they decided to aim higher for future journeys.
So their troop leader, Frieda Knezek, gave them two options: they could save up to go to Disney World or eat lunch with an astronaut at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Tex. They chose the astronaut lunch.
“I didn’t expect them to choose that but they did,” Knezek said.
After two years of saving up all their earnings from cookie sales and from the outdoor mystery camp they operate every summer, their galactic dreams became a reality a few weeks ago. The seven sixth-graders and six chaperones trekked down to Houston, toured the center, and ate lunch with astronaut Mark Polansky.
“It was amazing,” said Sarah Knezek, the troop leader’s 12-year-old daughter.
Getting to the space center would cost $650 per girl, and the Scouts also wanted to defray travel expenses for chaperones, Frieda said. Much of their travel funds came from Camp Conundrum, which the troop has held for three years, although they have hosted other troops for about five.
Camp Conundrum takes place at McPhee Reservoir over the course of three days in July, and was inspired by the Conundrum Escape Rooms in Durango. Girl Scouts from all over Colorado and even a smattering from Texas have come to camp, canoe, raft, and solve a mystery, Frieda said.
The Mancos girls had a funding source, then, but saving also took dedication and discipline. “I tested them,” Frieda said. She would ask if they wanted to see a movie, or take part in another activity, but the girls stayed true to their cause – they were waiting for NASA.
And after two years of saving, their discipline paid off. On March 1, the troop drove to Albuquerque, and from there flew to Houston to take part in the space center’s two-day overnight program, designed specifically for Girl Scouts. The girls took a tram around mission control, learned about current NASA missions, and slept alongside Robonauts, humanoid robots built to help humans work in space.
The highlight of their expedition, Sarah said, was their lunch with Polansky.
“He was really humble,” she said. “He really answered a lot of other people’s questions.”
Polansky joined NASA in 1992 as an aerospace engineer and research pilot, and took part in three space flights, logging over 993 hours in space.
“He was so encouraging to the girls,” Frieda said, adding that he especially pushed them to engage in STEM classes.
One girl asked him what space smells like, to chuckles from her fellow Scouts.
But Polansky told them not to laugh, the troop leader recalled – space apparently does smell, like “barbecue and burnt metal,” in the astronaut’s words.
The troop returned home a few days later. They don’t yet know where their next trip will be, but they’ve been thinking about London, Sarah said.