Noah Burgin is banking on someday being an astronaut and traveling to Mars, although he isn't sure how his mother is going to react to his gravity-defying goal.

The 15-year-old son of Jennifer and Bradley Burgin of Fort Smith, Burgin is about to begin his sophomore year at Southside High School, and he already knows that he wants to spend his adult years working at NASA. He thanks his recent, "wonderful" experiences at the Advanced Space Academy program at the Huntsville, Ala.-based U.S. Space and Rocket Center, NASA Marshall Space Flight Center's official visitor center.

"The Advanced Space Academy program was a great experience for me," said Burgin, who received a full-ride scholarship to attend the week-long Advanced Space Academy program. "It helped me overcome some of my fears, and it showed me that I can do things if I really want to do them."

Burgin was selected to receive the program's scholarship, as well as the special Hall of Fame scholarship and its accompanying Hall of Fame medal. The medal is awarded to a select few participants by Hall of Fame members, who are Space Academy alumni who went on "to do great things" in their respective communities, he said.

"That scholarship included an award packet that had signatures from astronauts, and I was able to get my picture with Hall of Fame members," Burgin said. "It was a pretty cool deal."

Burgin's application for the scholarship included letters of recommendation from his eighth-grade science teacher, Amy Adams, and Captain Brad Kidder, public affairs officer for the Arkansas Wing of the Civil Air Patrol. Burgin also had to write two essays and design a "patch" that included different drawings that represented him before he could be considered an Advanced Space Academy attendee.

"The Advanced Space Academy is for older kids — kids in grades 10 and older," he said. "It's more detailed, and we are assigned specific roles in simulations. We get to act out those roles in those large simulators.

"There are more details," Burgin added. "We have more anomalies, and we have more trouble with our missions. It's a bit harder, and we have to do more specific commands during the simulation."

Burgin said he and his fellow academy participants also benefited from team-building exercises via zip-lining sessions, scuba diving programs and the Pamper Pole.  

"The Pamper Pole is where you climb up a telephone pole that has these little tiny pins in it," he said. "At the top of the pole, there's a circular top that spins, and that was the scariest part. You have nothing to pull up onto; you just have to balance yourself up on that pole."

Those on the Pamper Pole then are supposed to jump off the pole and use their hand to touch a nearby rope.

"You're harnessed in, of course, and the harness then brings you down," Burgin said. "Eventually I went on it, even though I was terrified of it at first. It definitely was one of the scariest things I did, but it was really fun. I ended up enjoying that a lot."

Burgin also felt excitement while scuba diving at the academy. Learning about the equipment and how to give "OK" and "Not OK" hand signals simultaneously were educational and entertaining, he said.

"They had this giant tank filled with water, and you're down there for 20 or maybe 30 minutes," said Burgin, who attended the regular Space Academy program in August 2016. "There's a massive structure under there made of PVC pipe. You get to swim around it and inspect it, and there's a basektball hoop attached to the PVC pipe. You throw a bowling ball through the hoop, and that helps signify weightlessness in outer space."

Joining his fellow team members to create a heat shield also was rewarding for Burgin. The shield was created to protect an egg from a blowtorch. 

"You put the heat shield right up to the blowtorch, and after the torch is on the shield for three minutes, they see if your egg has cooked at all,' Burgin said. "If the egg hasn't cooked, you pass, but if the egg did cook, then you don't pass. It was fun and challenging."

Burgin thinks he's always been somewhat of a fan of NASA and outer space travel. He playfully blames the "Lego Space" set he cherished as a younger child.

"One day on vacation, we decided to visit the Space Center in Huntsville, and that really opened my eyes," Burgin said. "I started really getting interested in the space program, NASA and third-party space programs, and I asked my parents, 'Do you think I could go to the Space Academy?'

"I think it costs about $1,000 to go to the Space Academy, but my family couldn't afford to dish out that kind of money," he added. "My parents encouraged me to raise money, so they bought me over 500 lollipops, and I started selling them to everyone."

Burgin began to make a profit on the lollipops, but he still lacked the money to attend the Space Academy. That is when his grandfather, H.C. Varnadore, stepped into the picture.

"My grandpa, who was big on the space program and was a lieutenant colonel for the 188th Air Base in Fort Smith, decided to pay the rest of my way to Space Camp last year," Burgin said. "This year, he bought me a NASA flight suit to wear at the Advanced Space Academy."

Despite interacting with the other academy members for only one week, Burgin formed solid friendships that continue to blossom, thanks to Facebook and email.

"I was very lucky because when I was there, they had schools come from all over the world," he said. "There were only three or four Americans in my group — over half of my group was from New Zealand, and others were from Belgium and Australia — so we got to meet a bunch of other kids from around the world. It was a cultural experience."

A former viola player who plays trumpet in the school band program, Burgin isn't sure where he will attend college, but he is positive he will pursue work opportunities at NASA. He said he feels it's his mission to "help" the NASA space program.

"I dream about becoming an astronaut, and the Advanced Space Academy has shown me that anything is possible, as long as you work hard at it and stay dedicated," Burgin said. "And our age is perfect. Our generation will be going to Mars. People want to give us the skills to pursue that opportunity. I would definitely love to go to Mars. I'd even love to go to the moon, as long as it's somewhere in space."

Jennifer Burgin sounded less gung-ho when it came to discussing her son's wish to go into outer space. 

"I was barely able to leave my son alone in another state, in Alabama, for the Space Academy," she said with a laugh. "I had a hard enough time with that, let alone the thought of my son going to another planet.

"But I know Noah had a blast with the program," Burgin added. "He has experiences that he would never have gotten otherwise. He was able to set goals for himself, and he saw that he can achieve things. He used to never get onto roller coasters. We went to Universal after the program, and Noah was riding every scary ride possible." 

Like Jennifer Burgin, Bradley Burgin is proud of Noah.

"It takes people with a little more nerve and determination than what his Mom and I have to go into outer space," he said. "It took extra steps to get someone to go to the moon, and it will take even more steps for someone to go to Mars. If it's Noah's heart's desire to go to Mars, then I say, 'Go with it.'"