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posted: 3/15/2014 8:46 AM

Childhood love of space pays off with Mars study

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The Herald-Times

FORT WAYNE, Ind. -- Ron Williams remembers walking into the cafeteria with Mrs. Richardson's second-grade class at Broadview Elementary in 1961 to watch the launch of the Mercury spacecraft on a black-and-white television. Since before then, Williams has been interested in space, and now he is one step closer to reaching Mars, even though he actually isn't going into orbit.

Williams, who grew up in Bloomington, will spend four months with five other participants in a facility on Hawaii's Mauna Loa volcano as part of the NASA-funded Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation. Mauna Loa's terrain is similar to that of Mars, and it has little vegetation.

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While on the mission, Williams will focus on exploring the personality and psychological characteristics of the crew, their relationship to adjustment, group dynamics and mission success, according to the HI-SEAS website. He will depart for Hawaii next Monday and will arrive for a training phase beginning on March 21, with the mission beginning March 28, The Herald-Times reported (http://bit.ly/1nAsGuj).

The participants will reside in a two-story dome, which includes staterooms, a workshop and other common areas such as a kitchen and bathroom.

Williams said by participating in the simulation, he believes he is contributing to the knowledge of exploring Mars, as many others contributed to exploring the moon before astronauts finally set foot on the moon.

"I am nearly twice the age of the next oldest person on that mission," he said. "There was some nervousness about it, because I want to do a good job. I'm still a little nervous about being confined for such a long period of time. I'm hoping my passion for contributing to space exploration, and the chance of being around five brilliant scientists who want the same things, will carry me through those difficult times."

During the summer when he was 12 years old, Williams and friends built a mock Gemini space capsule, which was made of two-by-fours and had a door on top. One of those friends was Steve Flinn, who is now the systems manager of the data archive and laboratory for the Department of Political Science at Indiana University. Flinn said while Williams and others were often inside the capsule, he was designated as ground control.

Flinn discovered the simulation online and urged Williams to apply. Although he was not accepted the first time he applied, Williams was contacted by the organization in October and asked to apply for the second mission. Flinn said he was elated when he found out Williams was accepted this time.

"We were in contact when he was one of 300, one of 20," Flinn said. "I thought he had a very good chance."

Today, Williams is Dr. Ron Williams, director of the neuropsychology department at the Fort Wayne Neurological Center. He received a bachelor's degree in chemistry and neuropsychology from Indiana University in Bloomington, a graduate degree in geriatric psychology from the University of Notre Dame and a doctorate in neuropsychology from Ball State University.

When he departs on his mission, Williams will bring a piece of his childhood with him: a blanket with spacecraft Friendship Seven and astronaut John Glenn on it, which his mother bought in the 1960s at the Woolworth's store in downtown Bloomington.

Williams said he had teachers who made an impact on his upbringing such as Bill Lumbley, his former high school chemistry teacher. Williams said Lumbley and some of his other teachers were influential, because they knew what types of topics to teach at the high school level that would lead to success in college.

"He (Lumbley) was inspiring," Williams said. "He was a brilliant man, and an all-around good science teacher."

Lumbley, who retired in 1997, said Williams was one person who didn't say much in class, but took everything in and digested it.

"He was a very likable young man, never made waves or anything," Lumbley said. "You always remember the ones (students) who made waves."

When asked if he was surprised that Williams will be participating in a space simulation project, Lumbley said not at all.

"He was very capable and hardworking, he always seemed to go beyond what we were doing in class," Lumbley said. "That aspect of his achievement would not be out of the realm of possibility."

Williams said compared with the 1960s, people are much less enthusiastic about space today, although he has met enthusiastic young people, such as those who will also be participating on the simulation.

"Staying ahead of the Russians scientifically was what drove education and what drove our whole society and economy," Williams said. "The space program embodied that competition on a more visible level. It really drove us to greatness. I think that's something we are missing now."

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Information from: The Herald Times, http://www.heraldtimesonline.com

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