Helena's Fusion Robotics team visits the Johnson Space Center

Helena's Fusion Robotics team visits the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, last week. 

Helena's Fusion Robotics team was over the moon after returning from the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, last week. 

The team, which has traveled to the national First Tech Challenge twice, clinched a first-place victory at The Apollo 50th Next Giant Leap Student Challenge in late July. That victory earned the high school team a trip to the iconic space center where they interacted with astronauts, engineers and various NASA employees. 

Fusion's High School team competed at the Montana Learning Center on Canyon Ferry Reservoir against robotics teams from all across Montana. Their goal was to re-create the famous Apollo 11 landing on the moon. The challenge included a rover collecting samples, a drone flown from behind a curtain and a daring extraction of the lander. Teammates Emily Ellis, Ethan House, Rhett Quinn and Bryson Jones had to work together and coordinate to achieve success in their mission.

The team wasn't exactly confident moving into the competition, but their resilience won them a trip to NASA.

"As silly as it sounds, this challenge was really hard for us," House said. "It was stepping outside what we usually do."

House explained that the challenge was a lot more constrained and described it as a "paradigm shift" for the team. They had to work with tech that the middle school team uses for their robotics challenges, which puts boundaries on what the team was capable of.

"We thought we were going to get creamed," House said. "Props to the middle schoolers who do this all the time." 

Coach Mike Ellis said he had complete faith in the team moving into the challenge due to their dedication in everything they do. 

The team spent the first week of August visiting NASA and getting a sense of what goes on at the Johnson Space Center. Though the team did numerous things while there, two activities stood out to the them. Quinn and Emily called out NASA's neutral buoyancy lab as a highlight of the experience. House recalled the lunar rock vault as his favorite part of the trip. 

During their time there, the team got to meet NASA employees who are part of mission control teams, including one who was part of the Apollo 13 team. They also met with a systems engineer for the Saturn 5 Rocket and someone who worked collecting solar matter. 

"Overall, I honestly learned a lot," Emily said. "It was a good experience."

House said one of the underappreciated aspects of the trip was getting to see NASA from a different point of view. Their tour guides were NASA employees and House said it was easier to see them as regular people after the trip. Quinn and Emily echoed this sentiment. 

"It wasn't the sterile view many have of NASA," House said. 

The NASA trip marked the last time House would be a part of the Fusion Robotics team. The recent graduate is off to Montana State University in Bozeman to pursue his electrical engineering degree in just a couple of weeks. Ending on the trip to NASA was a special moment for him and put his future career prospects into perspective. House said that after doing so many interesting things with Fusion Robotics, it would be a shame to take those experiences and sit at a desk as his career. Pursuing internships with NASA or their contractors will be a major priority for House moving forward.

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"Just getting to be with my team one more time was great," House said. "I'm going to have to get a nicer car so I can come visit."

Emily, who graduated high school early, still has one more year with Fusion Robotics. She said pursuing firefighting before trying college is her major goal right now. Quinn, who will be a sophomore this year, still has a few years with the robotics team. He remains interested in an aerospace engineering career, an interest that grew with the NASA trip.

The Fusion Robotics team is currently gearing up for this year's First Tech challenge. The challenge will be revealed to every team in the country via a livesteam on Sept. 7. Ellis said he intends to have a get together for the team for the reveal.

"The minute that video goes off these guys put their heads together and start coming up with ideas," Ellis said. 

However, the team as a whole is facing an unexpectedly tough challenge. The space the team has called home for the past few years has been sold. The new owner has given the team a year, but ultimately they are seeking a new space to call home. 

"They need a space that will allow them to work on their mission and share their love of robotics through outreach rather than spending the bulk of their time fundraising for rent," Ellis said. "And maybe even a space that would allow them to expand and meet the need of the growing number of robotics enthusiasts." 

Any donated space could be a tax write off for the owner due to Fusion Robotics status as a 501c3 charity. Anyone interested in donating may contact coach Mike Ellis at 406-502-1067 or mikeellisinmontana@gmail.com.

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