Neco Jimenez, a senior at Southside High School, was selected to participate in NASA’s competitive High School Aerospace Scholars (HAS) program. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Neco Jimenez, a senior at Southside High School, has been obsessed with outer space ever since he was a small child. He grew up watching YouTube videos and reading articles about space exploration, dreaming of one day contributing to the field himself.

At the beginning of last school year, Jimenez was selected to participate in NASA’s competitive High School Aerospace Scholars (HAS) program. The prestigious program gives high school juniors across Texas the opportunity to take a challenging and interactive 16-week online course with NASA. 

Each year, the HAS program chooses around 700 students to participate in the course, and this year’s cohort of 1,148 students was the largest class in the 21-year history of the program.

The course includes opportunities to learn from scientists and engineers at the top of their fields, access to NASA programs and software applications, and the chance to compete for a spot at a six-day residential summer experience. Typically held at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, this year’s program was held remotely in early August.

Jimenez, who was among those selected for the exclusive summer experience based on his exemplary performance in the course, reports feeling empowered and emboldened by the whole learning adventure.

The summer experience challenged participants, working in teams, to explore the logistics of placing a powerful telescope on the backside of the moon, said Jimenez.

“It really intrigued me that NASA would be like ‘hey, high school students, figure this out,’” Jimenez said of the agency and intellectual respect afforded to participants.

“As much as we know now about space, it will be multiplied times 100 if we are actually able to get a telescope on the other side of the moon.”

According to Jessica Cordero, who manages the HAS program for NASA, the activity is especially significant because it “creates a unique opportunity for a diverse set of students to contribute to NASA’s work in human space exploration and discovery.” 

Jimenez said that through working in teams on the task the power of teamwork took on a whole new importance for him.

“The big thing I took away is the idea of teamwork,” he said. “NASA wasn’t built by one person, it was built by a team of people, a team of teams, actually.”

Jimenez said that the summer experience impressed upon the participants the edict that “if you feel like you’re doing a task alone, then you’re doing it completely wrong.” 

Jimenez knows he hasn’t gotten to where he is alone. He credits Southside ISD science specialist Samuel Ebong and Southside High School science teacher Sadie Emery with recognizing and nurturing his talent.

Both Ebong and Emery have worked with Jimenez, who showed early promise in eighth grade, when he was part of a team chosen to present research at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.

Ebong was quick to praise the young scholar’s willingness to make and learn from mistakes, his work ethic, and teachability, referring to Jimenez’ HAS experience as an “immense opportunity” capable of helping him grasp “what it takes to get ahead.”

He’s hopeful that, with Jimenez blazing the trail, more of these kinds of opportunities may become available for students in Southside ISD. 

Jimenez, who has been mentored by Ebong since seventh grade, said the advisor taught him “how to communicate and be somewhat charismatic.”

According to Jimenez, Emery has been a special kind of guiding light, devoting long after school hours to helping him sharpen his skills and apply for opportunities like the HAS program.

Emery called Jimenez a “trailblazer” and a “role model.” She praised his “gung-ho” attitude and his “readiness to always do hard things.”

She admitted that it takes long hours on the part of a mentor to help a student reach Jimenez’s level, but she was quick to add that “seeing the kid grow and thrive, that’s worth every extra second.”

Looking ahead to his future, Jimenez first looked back on his past.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the study of the stars, the idea of extraterrestrial life, and space – I just love space,” he said.

His goal is to become an astronomer or an astrophysicist and to work specifically in the area of space travel. He’s especially keen on the notion of the human colonization of Mars or other potentially inhabitable planets.

“I’ve always wondered what’s actually out there,” Jimenez said. “What are the truths behind the universe? Is the universe in the way we think of it even there?”

He wants to investigate these big questions himself, even though he acknowledges that one lifetime probably isn’t enough. Jimenez is content to contribute to the work and hopefully inspire others to do the same.

Ultimately, he hopes to see “a fresh beginning of a civilization on a new planet.”

“My goal has always been to be out there, and not just down here stuck on Earth.”

James Courtney is a freelance arts and culture journalist in San Antonio. He also is a poet, a high school English teacher and debate coach, and a proud girl dad.