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Launching an Interest in STEM Careers: Southwest Sends Students to Rocket Launch



A few months ago, Nic Jepsen, a high school student, reached out to our CEO, Gary Kelly, to ask for roundtrip airfare to see his team’s nationally-recognized science experiment rocketed into space. At Southwest, we love to inspire students to pursue Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) careers (learn more here), and our Purpose is connecting Customers to what’s important in their lives. So, we weren’t surprised to learn Gary said yes. And, it didn’t hurt that the experiment involved a peanut plant. We’re partial to peanuts around here!


Behind every seat is a story. I’ll let Nic tell you about this once-in-a-lifetime experience:

Hello, I'm Nic Jepsen, a senior in high school, on the verge of starting my first year of college, where I plan on studying physics. I am into science and all things nerdy.


Last spring, I participated in a three-day space exploration science camp called Go For Launch!, hosted by a nonprofit space education organization called Higher Orbits. This was part of a national competition to create the best experiment that could be tested in space. The prize for winning? Your experiment is sent to the International Space Station. Yeah, that giant object floating around the earth.


Our experiment was testing how the levels of nitrate produced by a peanut plant were changed by a lack of gravity. Nitrate, a compound made from nitrogen, is essential for some plants to grow, and peanuts put nitrate back into the soil. The benefits were that, if effective, the peanut plant could be used as food, a producer of oxygen, and crop preparation for when we colonize Mars.


I was in shock to learn my team, the Saguaro Snakes, actually WON, and our experiment would be going up into space! Then Higher Orbits, the nonprofit organization that put this entire competition together, told us we were invited to see our experiment sent into space at the Orbital ATK launch of a NASA mission, at the NASA facility in Wallops Island, Virginia.


I was ecstatic, and so were my teammates. Then the question arose: how the heck would I get there? Wallops Island is across the U.S., and I didn't really have the means to purchase an open-ended roundtrip flight. (The reason I needed it open ended was because there is always a chance a launch could be postponed due to unforeseen complications.) I started giving up on the possibility of going, because I couldn't see any way I could get there with my family.


I decided to email Gary Kelly, the CEO of Southwest Airlines, and ask him to donate tickets so my dad and I could go to the launch. I thought to myself, “If I don't ask, the answer will always be no.”


A few days after I sent the email, I got a very personal response back from Gary Kelly, saying yes, he definitely would provide tickets for my dad and me. Not only that, he gave open ended tickets for each of my teammates and a chaperone. I was absolutely stunned that he personally replied to me! I couldn't have been happier!


The weekend of the launch, my travel on Southwest was fun and a highlight. The flight crew made me feel really important. The entire rocket launch experience was amazing! We received behind-the-scenes tours of NASA and Orbital ATK facilities, attended press conferences, and had front row seats! Actually being there was mind blowing! I first saw the engines ignite, and then it was a full 2-3 seconds before I heard and felt the ignition. Actually seeing our experiment leave the earth gave me chills!


This moment that I was able to experience has changed my life, and I am so grateful to Gary Kelly for helping me be able to go.

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