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A teenager may select the site where NASA’s next Mars Rover lands

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If Alex Longo peaks in high school, he won’t have done too poorly for himself. After all, it’s not every day that NASA allows a teenager to potentially pick the landing site for the next Mars Rover.

In 2020, Longo will finally exit his teenage years, and NASA will launch its next rover mission. And coincidentally, that mission’s destination just may be decided by the Raleigh, North Carolina native.

“My first experience with space exploration was in 2005,” Longo told NPR. “I was just five years old, and mom and dad had me watch a space shuttle launch.” That fateful decision by Mr. and Mrs. Longo spurred a lifelong interest in NASA in their son, who spent the next several years of his young life writing to the space agency. “Each time, they sent me cool space shuttle mission posters or patches,” he said about the early responses to his inquires.

And he wasn’t just writing to NASA — at the tender age of five, Longo decided that he wanted to become an astronaut. And not just any astronaut — but the first one to walk on Mars.

Sure, it’s a dream that many of us have as youngsters, but Longo has done better than most at pursuing it. Two years ago, Longo found an announcement of NASA’s website regarding the next trip to Mars.  “I saw that they were looking for abstracts from scientists to suggest landing sites,” he said. “I decided, well, I’ll write something up … I’ll have my very small say in this,” he continued, “and maybe they’ll send me some cool stuff.”

But they sent Longo a lot more than “some cool stuff.” As his mother, Laura Longo recalled, the document her son submitted was a “multi-page scientific document.” And it was enough to really grab NASA’s attention. His proposal involved sending NASA’s 2020 rover to the Gusey Crater, the same place the Spirit rover visited more than a decade ago in 2004. And NASA really, really liked the idea. So much, in fact, that they emailed Longo to invite him to attend the initial landing site planning meeting.

“At first, I didn’t believe it,” he said. “I thought it was a dream or something. So I just got up, walked away, and a while later I came back and that email was still there. And I was like, ‘Wow, I actually just got invited to go to a NASA conference!’ How cool is that?”

It was pretty cool in 2014, when 14-year-old Longo met with NASA scientists for the first time. But now, two years later, he’s come much further along. His proposal is now one of eight semi-finalists still in the running for the 2020 mission, and next year, he’s hoping that his idea will be among the final four.

So here’s a lesson for you, kids. Sometimes, when you work at it hard enough, your dreams of becoming an astronaut (or at least, getting NASA’s attention) really can come true.

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