Science students at Mercy High School had a front row seat, or as close as you can get from a classroom in Connecticut, first thing Friday morning to the cosmic death of NASA's Cassini spacecraft as it ended its 20-year mission with a graceful dive into Saturn's atmosphere.
On NASA's live stream of the mission's final day, there was 2007 Mercy graduate Joanie Stupik in the control room, talking about her job steering the delicate spacecraft over the last four years as an engineer with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
"There's Joanie!" physics teacher Buff Bachenheimer shouted as her former student talked about the task of keeping Cassini perfectly on track so it could transmit data until its final moment.
"We want to get every last possible second of information, which means our antenna needs to be pointed towards Earth for as long as we possibly can. As we enter into the atmosphere Saturn's going to start trying to tug us away so we want to hold the antenna as steady as we possibly can for that whole time," Stupik said on screen. "We're learning all about Saturn's atmosphere with all the instruments we can as we go in."
About 25 students at the all-girls school watched the broadcast from the very classroom Stupik sat in 10 years ago. A few arrived by 7 a.m. to watch, even though their class didn't begin until 7:30.
Cassini entered Saturn's upper atmosphere traveling nearly 77,000 miles per hour. NASA scientists watched, with Stupik's commentary going out to the millions watching the broadcast, as the spacecraft's thrusters struggled to keep the stream of valuable data heading back toward Earth.
At about 4:55 a.m. Pacific time — 7:55 a.m. at Mercy — the transmission stopped when the radio signal flat-lined, a quiet end to the spectacular mission that included up-close observations of the rings around the second-largest planet and the discovery of a subsurface ocean on one of Saturn's moons that might have the conditions to support life.
"From a scientific perspective, it's written the textbook on Saturn, Saturn's rings and Saturn's moons," Stupik, 28, said in a telephone interview with the Courant on Thursday. "On the engineering side it's one of NASA's best-behaved missions ever. Our parts have been working almost flawlessly for 20 years. There's a lot of information that can be used on future projects as we keep exploring outer space."
Students who watched the end-of-mission broadcast said seeing Stupik's role was inspiring as they think about whether to pursue science and technology careers in the next few years.
Mercy junior Caroline Kilian, 16, of Middletown, said seeing the highly specialized and exciting work Stupik is doing provides a valuable perspective on the possibilities
"I've always been very fascinated by science , I'm on the robotics team here, and it's an incredible moment in history that we're going to be talking about in years to come and I wanted to experience it in a place where we have the personal connection to Joanie and therefore the mission," Kilian said.
She said it's a little early to predict exactly what career she's interested in, but Stupik's work in a traditionally male-dominated field provides a great example for girls in school now.
"Having someone in her position, it's inspiring for us to see her go on from someone in our shoes to be part of this amazing experience," Kilian said. "We still need role models like her for women and we need diversity in all programs."
Mercy has a highly-competitive robotics team that has racked up victories over the last few years, and just Thursday the math club won a major competition. Bachenheimer said the school has long had a focus on encouraging girls to get involved in science programs.
"It was really exciting for me to see my former student as a commentator for NASA, and it was nice for the students. They got to see a really successful Mercy girl going on to excel in science and engineering and all the things we tell them they can do," Bachenheimer said.
Stupik visited Mercy last year and did video chats with students in the spring to talk to them about her work. She plans to do another session with this year's physics students next week.
Sister Mary McCarthy, the longtime principal and now the president of Mercy High School, said having a former student participating in the Cassini mission, and then sharing her experience with the current students, has been a thrill for the school.
"We tell them all the time, there's no limit to what they can do. We've enhanced the math and science programs incredibly in the last 10 or 15 years," McCarthy said. "I'm not surprised Joanie is where she is. She's a phenomenal role model for the girls."
Stupik grew up in Massachusetts but her family moved to Higganum before she started at Mercy High School. From there she went to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute for aerospace and mechanical engineering, then graduate school at the University of Illinois. She now lives in Pasadena, Calif.
She said she was in the right place at the right time to get her dream job at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory so early in her career. Bachenheimer had "a pretty formative role in my decision to become an engineer," she said, and communicating with the current Mercy students has been a lot of fun, she said.
"I especially want to help the young women to see that it's very complicated, but it's a lot of fun," Stupik said Thursday. "When we plunge through the rings of Saturn it's a gap of about 1,200 miles. At that scale it's like trying to land a fleck of dust on a penny from 10 miles away."
"It means so much to me to be able to communicate directly with the girls and show them that if they're interested, it's cool to be interested," Stupik said.
Doris Xu, 16, is a junior and an exchange student from China who will have spent three years at Mercy when she graduates.
"I'm pursuing engineering in the future so that's really inspiring to see someone who sat in that room 10 years ago and now she's at NASA working on such a wonderful project," Xu said. "I think she's a true inspiration."