With smarts and resilience, New Canaan student designs dreams that are out of this world
Shane DiGiovanna's first word was "airplane."
He uttered the two-syllable term at age 3 -- before his cochlear implant, before he could hear and before, theoretically, he should have been able to speak.
"I have no idea how I figured that out," said Shane, now 11 years old and in the fifth grade at New Canaan Country School.
Shane's mom, Patricia, can't quite explain it either: "He didn't even say `Mom' or `Dad.' That was the only word he could say. He was born with a rare hearing impairment and until he got his implant, he couldn't speak because he couldn't hear. But he managed to say `airplane.'"
Shane declares that his passion for outer space was born right then and there as a tyke with an unusual starter word.
Eight years later, Shane's vocabulary has filled out quite a bit. With great precision he tells stories, careful to include reference to the date, time, color and size of its subjects. He says he devotes a portion of each day to the writings of British scientist Stephen Hawking, aeronautic history and news or other texts that entice his insatiable curiosity. He fits the bill of a bookworm, a history buff and a ham.
"Shane looks at life as an information-gathering adventure," Patricia said. "He's been like that since he was born. For him, it's all about how much information he can pack in his brain. It doesn't end with his passion for space. I think he looks at life like there's so much information out there and he needs to know it all and as fast as possible."
Shane aspires to work for NASA, but he knows it's impractical to dream that he will ever walk the moon. That's because he was born with a rare, fragile skin condition called Epidermolysis Bullosa. He is missing a protein that binds together the layers of skin.
"I'm kind of missing the glue," he explains. "It makes my hands web up."
Shane has gained limited functionality in his hands after undergoing about 16 major surgeries to form working palms, thumbs and fingers.
"Unfortunately, the hands grow back webbed like that, so every few years he has to re-do the surgeries," Patricia explained. "Maybe when his hands stop growing he will be able to stop with the surgeries, but [the doctors] don't really know because most kids give up on it. But he has not come to that point yet. So we're forging new territory here, because there's only so much research on this condition."
Shane said he endures the painful surgeries because he wants his hands to be functional for his future work with NASA.
"I can even hold a pencil with this old claw," he said, demonstrating his practiced clutch. "But I don't think I would ever meet the medical qualifications to be an astronaut, so I would choose the next best thing, which is designing spacecrafts."
Spacecraft design isn't just a task Shane aspires to learn, it's a hobby he's been hard at work on for quite some time.
In 2003, when Shane was 4 years old, NASA's Columbia space shuttle disintegrated as it attempted landing. Patricia said she and Shane were dining out at a restaurant when they learned of the disaster.
"I remember Shane pulled out this place mat and he started redesigning the shuttle," she said. "I kept it because I thought that it might be pretty good. He was like, `Well, because of this, this and this, it didn't have to do with the fuel tanks. And if they redesigned this here...' I was kind of like, `Wow, this might have some merit.'"
Recently, some of Shane's blueprints reached the hands of a NASA engineer.
In February, Shane traveled to the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. The JPL is the birthplace of many NASA satellites, rovers and other robotic exploratory spacecrafts.
Shane toured the campus as the general public does, but with one extra perk: NASA engineers granted him access into the clean room, a high-security lab where they assemble rovers destined for Mars.
Shane donned a white, multi-layered sterile suit, boots and hat before entering into an air shower that blasts dirt and dust off of the suit's exterior to prevent small particles from damaging the multi-billion dollar equipment.
"It's almost like the material clothing doctors wear in the operating room," Shane said, adding, "The reason why you have to put on the clean suit is so that you don't contaminate the rovers. You kind of don't want to get any germs on the spacecrafts because incase there is life on Mars, you don't want to have human bacteria kill them all before we can get to them. Any germ could kill them all since they would have absolutely no defense."
Once inside the clean room, engineers showed off an aluminum Mini Cooper-sized rover called "Curiosity" that is scheduled to launch on a two-year mission to search for signs of early life on Mars in October 2011.
"The funniest part is that the tour that we left to go in the clean room with the rover was on the viewing deck, and I guess they saw me in there and recognized me," Shane said. "The leader of the tour waved half-heartedly since he knew that I had been on his tour and I got to go in there and he didn't and maybe never will."
Shane said the engineers talked with him enthusiastically and were impressed with his knowledge of their work.
One engineer in particular, Stephen Lee, has since become a mentor and pen pal to Shane. He has even offered to guide him through course selection when he enters college and graduate school.
"From the moment we met, Shane impressed me as an extremely intelligent and articulate young man," Lee said. "I [speak] at a lot of schools and Shane immediately struck me as one of the brighter students I've met. ... In our E-mail correspondence, I give him detailed technical jargon and concepts and he understands them readily."
Lee is the Mars Science Laboratory Guidance Navigation and Control Manager at the JPL. When Curiosity launches into space, he and his team will be responsible for keeping the space craft moving in the right direction and controlling the rover's camera mast and antenna once it lands.
Shane has already begun to e-mail his own spacecraft sketches to Lee.
"He has proposed using large helium balloons to slow the descent for the rover into the Mars atmosphere," Lee said. "He calculated the equations and used mathematics and physics to do it. It's a very creative, sophisticated idea, and now we're having discussions about how the helium in the balloons might act differently in the Mars atmosphere than it would on Earth. ... I certainly see a lot of myself in Shane."