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To the Stars Kansas: A Kansas Day Celebration

Kansas Day is Friday, January 29, but we can’t fit everything we love about this Ad Astra Per Aspera State into just one day! Join us all week as we introduce Kansans whose paths literally led to the stars! 

Charlie Garcia

Kansan and Cosmosphere Camp Alumnus

Charlie Garcia grew up in Hutchinson, Kansas. He knew since he was a child that he wanted to work in the space program as an aerospace engineer, and he was lucky enough to be helped on that path by the Cosmosphere, and the clear night skies over Kansas. Garcia completed his undergraduate education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, studying Aerospace Engineering. He’s worked at SpaceX on the Falcon 9 Launch Engineering team at Cape Canaveral and the Stage 2 Manufacturing Team in Hawthorne. Garcia currently works as a program lead at Agile Space Industries in Durango, Colorado, where they design hypergolic rocket engines for in-space maneuvering.

Charlie Garcia with his grandfather, Jack Wortman, at the Cosmosphere in the late 1990s. 

Karen and Travis Lechtenberg 

Kansans and Cosmosphere Camp Alumni

Karen and Travis Lechtenberg were high school sweethearts. Both Karen and Travis were born and raised in Hutchinson, Kansas. 

Kansas gave Karen experiences for hands-on science inside and out of the classroom. From agriculture living, to clear skies to one-of-a-kind museums, wonder was everywhere. She spent much of her childhood in the Cosmosphere’s Hall of Space Museum dreaming about the possibilities of science and engineering. She worked as a geologist with an energy company for eight years before the downturn. Karen has since focused on dinosaur bone excavation and prepping, starting a drone and 3D photography business, and creating artwork.

Both Karen and Travis were counselors together at the Cosmosphere from 2005-2008. Travis proposed to Karen at the STS-124 shuttle launch in Titusville, Florida. Karen earned a B.S. and M.S. in Geology from the University of Kansas and Travis earned a B.S., M.S., and PhD in Aerospace Engineering, also from the University of Kansas. They were married in 2010 and their reception was held in the Cosmosphere’s grand lobby. They now live in Denver, Colorado, with two children Ryan and Lincoln.

Above: Karen and Travis make LOXIC (liquid oxygen ice cream) for Cosmosphere campers in the early 2000s. Below: Karen and Travis with their two children, Ryan and Lincoln.

Molly Martens

Kansan and Cosmosphere Camp Alumna

Molly Martens was born and raised in Wichita, Kansas. She grew up visiting the Cosmosphere regularly and attended Cosmosphere Camp for three summers. She decided after her first day at camp that she thought human spaceflight was a pretty neat endeavour, and she had to have some part of it! Molly also was lucky to have some really wonderful STEM teachers at East High School in Wichita, who encouraged her to pursue a college degree in a math based field. 

Molly currently works at SpaceX as a Mission Integration Engineer for the NASA ISS Cargo Resupply Program. Her team is responsible for ensuring thousands of pounds of critical science, supplies, and hardware arrive at ISS safely onboard the Dragon spacecraft.

Martens in front of SpaceX’s first recovered Falcon 9 booster.

Brandon Parks

Kansan and Cosmosphere Camp Alumnus

Brandon Parks was born in Hutchinson and grew up in a farm community a few miles west of Hutchinson. He attended Partridge Grade School, Haven High School, Hutchinson Community College, and then Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas.

Brandon loved cars, trucks, tractors, and farming as a kid. He had great math and science teachers and settled on Engineering early in high school. He worked at the Cosmosphere throughout his college years and fell in love with the aerospace industry!

Brandon worked for Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company in Texas for a few years after college before moving back to Wichita, Kansas to work for Cessna Aircraft (which is now Textron Aviation).  His grandfather retired from Cessna.  It’s a historic Kansas company and it’s been a great fit for him.

Michael Staab

Kansan and Cosmosphere Camp Alumnus

Michael Staab was born and raised in Wichita, Kansas. He’s always had a fascination with space and rockets as far back as he can remember.  Growing up in a place where there isn’t a lot of light pollution lets you really experience the wonders of the night sky.  One of his favorite Christmas presents was a telescope his parents got him when he was 8 or 9.  He would take his telescope out and view the planets, and even started tracking the motion of some of the Galilean Moons around Jupiter. He was simply fascinated by it all.  Eventually he got more involved in rocketry and robotics, and the rest is history.  Growing up so close to a place like the Cosmosphere also didn’t hurt; Michael attended three summers of Cosmosphere Camp, and that only further solidified his desire to become an engineer and work on interplanetary robotic and human exploration missions for NASA. He even applied to NASA’s Astronaut Candidate program twice!  It would be incredible to fly in space as part of the Artemis mission someday, but if that never happens, Michael will be more than satisfied working on the spacecraft that takes Astronauts on those missions.

Currently Michael works for Northrop Grumman Corporation (Fault Management and System Autonomy Principal Engineer – Lunar Missions). In the past he’s worked at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (Flight System Systems Engineer/Fault Protection Engineer – NISAR, Spacecraft Systems Engineer/Flight Director – Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity, Mission System Systems Engineer – Mars Perseverance Rover, Mission Operations Engineer – Cassini).

Staab at the Cassini Mission Ace desk at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Kate Becker

Kansan and Cosmosphere Camp Alumna

Kate Becker was born and raised in Newton, KS. Her early loves were basketball and space. Kate went to the University of Kansas basketball camp every year, and she visited the Cosmosphere many times a year! Her parents were members of the Cosmosphere, and brought the family to for every IMAX premier, and she also came to the Cosmosphere on school field trips. In middle school, Kate came to camp at the Cosmosphere. Since she went to college in Kansas, Kate was able to continue her summers at the Cosmosphere as a camp counselor and eventually a director and Camp Programs Manager. The Cosmosphere, just as much as playing basketball, taught her the value of teamwork, the two-sided coin of self-confidence and humility, the benefits of having deep curiosity about your craft, and the meaningful things you can accomplish when all these come together. Kate knew she wanted to carry these lessons into a career in the space realm. 

Kate currently works at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which is the government agency that builds the country’s weather satellites and produces weather forecasts (another important aspect of her Kansas upbringing!). She leads strategic planning for future weather satellite systems, which, just like flying a mission in the Cosmosphere’s Falcon space shuttle simulator (which is now the Astralis spacecraft), requires strong preparation, confidence in your team, and a passion for driving to the best results.

Above: Kate in Cosmosphere Camp mission control. Below: Kate on the Three Axis Trainer in Cosmosphere Camp. 

Dr. Steven Hawley

Kansan and former NASA astronaut 

Dr. Steven Hawley considers Salina, Kansas his hometown, although he also spent time in Ottawa, Kansas, where his grandparents lived, and where he was born. Hawley’s parents lived in Salina for many years while his father was pastor at First Presbyterian Church so he visited often, even after he left for college and career.

Hawley always had an interest in astronomy and science. His grandfather taught physics at Ottawa University, Ottawa, Kansas, and Hawley remembers reading some of his physics books as a child. When he asked him what physics did, he said “physics teaches you how to think.”  Hawley thought that was fascinating.  Also, living in Kansas Hawley could take advantage of our dark night skies to observe the stars.

Being a NASA astronaut was a tremendous honor and responsibility, according to Hawley. He was fortunate to fly five Space Shuttle missions between 1984 and 1999, including deploying and servicing the Hubble Space Telescope and deploying the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, two of NASA’s “great observatories” to study the universe.  When Hawley left NASA, he came to Kansas to teach physics and astronomy at the University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS, where he said his goal was to provide students with some of the same opportunities he had as a student at the University of Kansas.

Above: Hawley with the first telescope he ever received. Below: Photo credit, KU Alumni Association.