Dillon Whitmarsh

Dillon Whitmarsh, a 2016 graduate of Arlington High School, works on a project for the NASA Jump Start program at Wichita State University.

Dillon Whitmarsh can't recall the specific moment his interest in space began.

"As long as I can remember, space and anything NASA does has always been mind-blowing and something I always wanted to know more about," said Whitmarsh, a 2016 graduate of Arlington High School.

As a child, Whitmarsh recalls camping trips to Fremont Lakes State Recreation Area where his father, an astronomy buff, would teach him about the constellations and how they've been used throughout time.

"I really think that was part of my first interest in space," he said.

At Arlington Public Schools, the son of Ed and Zoe Whitmarsh, would learn more on the subject, leading him to study engineering in college.

But, when he began attending the University of Nebraska at Omaha, Whitmarsh wasn't sure what area he wanted to pursue.

He'd started with mechanical engineering.

"I had been told that mechanical is the most broad and if you want to start there, you can transfer into another area fairly easily," he said.

During his two years at UNO, Whitmarsh's interest in the aerospace and astronautics sides of engineering peaked.

"I felt a strong interest in it, so I began looking at schools, made visits and talked to as many people as I could," he said.

His efforts landed him at Wichita State University.

"It was the best fit for me," he said.

Home to a sub-department called NASA in Kansas, WSU is also home to the NASA Jump Start Program — which locals just call JSP.

"One of my teachers recommended I look into it," Whitmarsh said.

After applying, he was one of 15 students interviewed and then one of two selected for participation.

The JSP program is designed to facilitate student involvement in NASA-relevant projects, according to the program's website.

"It is an opportunity for students like myself to be involved with researchers and professors on campus and off campus," he said.

Currently, Whitmarsh is working with one of the astronautics professors on campus on the NASA General Mission Analysis Tool (GMAT) program.

As a member of the GMAT team, Whitmarsh said he uses a computer program to simulate orbits and run calculations on them.

"The main focus of it is to see what is the most efficient way to do things to get something from here up a specific height of orbit, then to the moon and back or out to mars," he said. "Whatever you want to simulate."

Others in the Jump Start Program are working with researchers on material testing, manufacturing processes and preventing icing on windows of aircraft.

"It's a pretty wide-range of things this program can be put toward," Whitmarsh said.

Including his time at UNO, Whitmarsh has completed three years of school and has two years left.

He said he's excited about what could happen in the next two years.

"There's so much more I can learn and that I'll be able to see," he said.

In January, Whitmarsh will begin working with a physics professor on a NASA-funded mission project.

"It doesn't seem real," Whitmarsh said. "The thought that in six months, I could be helping with a program for an upcoming NASA mission and actually put something into space, it's just mind-blowing to think that I'll be on a team that gets to do something like that."

He hopes his work in the JSP will lead to a full-time job with NASA.

Whitmarsh said he continues to be amazed by the work being done by NASA. With the recent celebration of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing and what's ahead, he said it's a great time to be a part of the agency.

"It's super exciting just thinking that we accomplished such an incredible feat 50 years ago," he said. "It does kind of make me confused and frustrated as to why we haven't done more since then, to be completely honest."

But, he knows NASA and some private companies are working on going back to the moon and also to Mars.

"That makes me really excited for the future," he said.

Working for NASA has been a "far-fetched dream" for Whitmarsh.

"I didn't put a whole lot of thought into it because we live in Nebraska and I didn't really know anybody who had gone to school to do anything with aircraft and space ships," he said. "It definitely crossed my mind that it would be the coolest thing in the world, but still kind of hard to believe that's what I'm going to school for."

As he can attest, Whitmarsh encourages others, especially those students in middle and high school at his alma mater, to believe in themselves.

"Don't be scared to dream too big and think that it can't be done," he said. "It was a big step for me to leave Omaha, it was a big step for me to move away from family and my home and out of state. But, it was my dream, so I wanted to try it and give it a shot and thankfully, so far, so good."

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