Chilean engineer speaks to students

Published 11:55 am Friday, November 12, 2010

Southampton Middle School seventh-grader Ashton Hawthorne, second from right, asks NASA Engineer Clint Cragg, a question about the Chilean mine rescue as students Brittany Bunn, left, Cameron Francis and John Livingston look on. Cragg oversaw the team that equipped the capsule for the rescue of the 33 miners.

COURTLAND—Southampton Middle School seventh-grader John Livingston felt pretty fortunate on Friday.

He and his fellow schoolmates got to meet the engineer from NASA who oversaw the agency’s effort to design the capsule used for last month’s rescue of 33 Chilean miners trapped half a mile below the earth’s surface for 69 days.

“I think it’s a real treat,” Livingston said prior to Clint Cragg’s program before the student body. “It’s not something everyone would get to have. He’s gotten so much attention.”

Sixth- and seventh-graders in the gifted program invited Cragg to speak. At the time, they were reading “The Diary of Anne Frank,” the story of a young Jewish teen and her family’s experiences in hiding during the German Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.

Middle school gifted program teacher Jane Stephenson had her students compare the plight of Frank’s family to that of the miners, who became trapped when a portion of the mine collapsed in early August.

“We’d heard about the mine collapse and just kept up with the miners’ story,” Stephenson said.

Students watched a portion of the rescue on CNN, witnessing the rescue of two miners.

They also learned that Cragg lives in nearby Yorktown. They sent him a package with peanuts and 40 letters of thanks along with an invitation to speak.

“He replied immediately and said ‘I would be delighted,’” Stephenson said.

Sixth-grader Brittany Bunn appreciated Cragg’s visit.

“I think it’s really great because the miners were stuck there, and he just kept trying,” she said.

“I think it’s real neat,” added seventh-grader Ashton Hawthorne. “This is someone from Virginia who had the opportunity to do this.”

A retired Navy submarine commander, Cragg is the principal engineer for NASA’s Engineering and Safety Center at Langley Research Center in Hampton. The Chardon, Ohio, native left the Navy after 30 years and joined NASA in 2003.

Cragg told students about forming a team of NASA engineers from across the country to design the capsule.

He explained that the team had to design something that a single miner could operate.

“In the end, there would be one miner left,” said Cragg, who spent five days in Chile during the rescue.

The capsule also needed a fault-tolerant latch — one that would require the use of two hands to open it so if bumped it wouldn’t open. The project included working with doctors to equip the capsule with oxygen tanks.

Engineers also included a communication system for miners to talk to the folks above.

Since last month’s rescue, Cragg said he’s spoken at about a dozen schools in the region. He doesn’t turn down invitations.

“I’ve got three kids,” the 55-year-old said.