'It gave me chills': Woodstock teacher helped make wheels on Mars rover Perseverance
Woodstock High School's new industrial technology teacher Austen Luedtke wants his students to know they may not need to go to college right after high school to have a chance of working on a project taken to space by NASA.
Before Luedtke came to Woodstock High School, he worked for Spring Grove-based Scot Forge, where he performed the rough machining on the wheels used by NASA on the Mars rover Perseverance that landed last week on the red planet's Jezero Crater.
Seeing the rover touch down was a proud moment, Luedtke said.
"It gave me chills. It was very cool to see," he said.
He is trying to use his experience as a motivating force for Woodstock students considering manufacturing careers. While a student at McHenry East High School years ago, Luedtke also worked for Scot Forge.
"Now that I work here, the whole point of all this stuff is to get kids in manufacturing," he said during a break between classes at school. "Part of my job is to make sure you know you don't have one or two avenues to a career, there are a number of them out there."
The most recent NASA mission to Mars is not the first time Scot Forge has worked for the space agency.
It also created the wheels for the Curiosity rover that explored the fourth-closest planet to the sun, and Scot Forge, which is employee-owned, has produced a wide variety of components for NASA's exploration systems development programs, according to a December 2014 NASA publication.
Forged parts made by the Spring Grove company were installed on the Mobile Service Tower and Crawler Transporter at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and flight hardware in a type of alloy that is not iron-based, known as nonferrous alloy, was adopted for the launch abort for Orion and the spacecraft itself, according to the 2014 publication.
"This holistic involvement is a cornerstone of the company's approach for serving the space industry, whether it's ground support equipment or extraterrestrial rovers," according to the NASA feature on Scot Forge.
Luedtke's hiring at the beginning of the school year as the industrial technology teacher at Woodstock High more closely tied Woodstock School District 200 system to Scot Forge.
Steven Thompson, who formerly held Luedtke's position, left the public education system after the last school year to take a job at Scot Forge, but his new role there as a technical educator still involves working with young people, as it entails trying to get students from area high schools into the company's employment.
Thompson helped start a dual credit program between Woodstock High and McHenry County College that gave teenage learners a chance to make progress toward an associate degree. He said the company's connection to NASA and having a teacher in the area like Luedtke who experienced helping create parts of a rover project appeals to students.
This week, NASA released high-quality images and videos captured by the Perseverance rover's landing that The Associated Press described as breathtaking.
"That brings it to the real world with the kids," Thompson said. "Now especially with videos that NASA is turning out, I'm sure Austen can be talking about that with kids because that's real world."
Since 2008, Thompson estimated he helped 30 students gain internship experience with Scot Forge as a Woodstock teacher, he said. Two are still working with the business as a machinist and apprentice, he said, and now the company is also being fed potential employees by more than a dozen high schools in and near McHenry County.
"He is able to talk more honestly to the students about a career in manufacturing," Thompson said of Luedtke. "He understands it's a good career, and he understands that especially Scot Forge can offer a good career to young kids."
In all, the company last year had 78 high school, technical school and college-aged interns working, said its organizational development leader, Tony Velotta. The year before it had 72, and the company wants to keep growing that number, he said.
"That feeds our talent pipeline," Velotta said. "It's a path to employee ownership. The one thing I tell everybody is we don't hire kids just for part-time work. We hire the students we think are going to become part of the Scot Forge family. We get them trained up here while they're students. When they become full-time employee-owners, they hit the floor running."