Portland High School grad reaches for the stars

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PORTLAND — In studying to become an aerospace engineer, Evan Peaco’s ultimate goal is to “push space exploration beyond what we’re capable of now,” including sending humans to Mars.

Peaco is a 2014 graduate of Portland High School and recently received the prestigious Dr. Robert H. Goddard memorial scholarship, worth $10,000, from the National Space Club.

Peaco, who topped 7,000 other applicants for the honor, was the keynote speaker at the club’s annual scholarship dinner, which was held in early March in Washington, D.C. 

At the dinner, Peaco had the chance to meet legendary astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who was the lunar module pilot during the Apollo 11 mission in July 1969, and the second man to walk on the moon.

In announcing Peaco as the winner of the Goodard scholarship, the National Space Club said he “rose to the top of the competition with his strong academic record and experience in aerospace.”

The process of becoming the Goodard scholar is a tough one, and includes first completing an online application and then submitting a video on why the applicant is inspired by space. Six finalists are chosen to undergo an interview process.

Peaco is a junior at the University of Maryland in College Park, where he’s on the space systems track. He plans to earn at least a master’s degree, but said this week he’s not sure about also pursuing a Ph.D.

Members of the Portland School Board recognized Peaco for his achievement during their March 21 meeting, when Superintendent Xavier Botana said, “We encourage (our) students to reach for the stars, and that is what Evan is doing, quite literally.”

Peaco told the School Board that his time at Portland High School prepared him well and said many of his teachers were “exceptionally able to engage students in the material they were teaching, and also cared about the success of every student individually.”

As a student, Peaco said, he didn’t participate solely on the math team and the robotics club, but also appreciated the opportunities he was given to take part in civic engagement, the arts and sports.

In particular, Peaco said he would like to recognize Daniel Deniso, who teaches AP calculus at Portland High, as well as Ileen DaPonte, who teaches 10th grade math and who also led the math team when Peaco was a student.

“I’d also like to recognize (Rosalee) Lamm, who I had for geometry and physics and who organized the school’s Robotics Team,” he said, adding, “in general I’d like to recognize all the teachers I had at Portland High School and King Middle School, (because) each of them helped me to reach where I am today.”

In his keynote address to the National Space Club, Peaco said he’s always loved gazing at the moon and the planets and it’s his hope that he’ll witness the first humans setting foot on Mars within his lifetime.

But, he said, such progress will only be possible if the people of the world work together to make it happen.

As an aerospace engineering undergraduate, Peaco said most of his classes “are math, science, and engineering-based. So, for example, I’ve taken classes covering aerodynamics, electricity and magnetism, special relativity, quantum mechanics (and) thermodynamics,” among others.

“Currently,” he said, “I’m taking classes on control theory, spaceflight dynamics and aerospace structures. I haven’t taken any astronomy classes at university, but I’ve kept it up as a hobby.”

Peaco said he looks forward to the commercialization of space.

“That means more opportunities for space tourism colonization (and) asteroid mining,” he said. “In the more distant future, I hope people will be able to easily travel to destinations like the moon and Mars, (which would) pave the way for permanent colonization of these places.”

With government funding of NASA significantly reduced, Peaco said there are areas “where the private sector can make real progress in space exploration.”

“Right now,” he said, “we are seeing private companies creating technologies that will drastically reduce the cost of reaching low-Earth orbit, which will greatly accelerate the commercialization of space.”

“However, the government still needs to play a leading role in space exploration,” Peaco added. “As it’s the only entity with the potential to fund grand achievements like a Mars mission.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KirishCollins.

Evan Peaco, a Portland High School graduate and winner of the National Space Club’s Goodard scholarship, touring the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center with the James Webb Space Telescope in the background.

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