A nonprofit group is looking for San Antonio students to join a free, three-year program starting this fall in which they’ll be designing and building devices to explore lunar caves.

The Lunar Caves Analog Test Sites program, called LCATS, builds on the discovery of underground pits on the moon in 2009 — 500-feet-wide holes on the surface of the moon — allowing students to explore the science behind the possibilities of using them as shelters for human habitation.

The WEX Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes space STEM education, partners with local school districts in an attempt to better reach economically disadvantaged students, underrepresented minorities and female students. Funds from NASA, the WEX Foundation, LiftFund, Astroport Space Technologies and private donors cover students’ tuition. For the upcoming school year, the majority of program costs will be covered by a $110,000 gift from the Kelly Heritage Foundation.

The nonprofit needs 30 total middle and high school students to join the program for the 2023-24 school year. Camp for the cohort starts Sept. 16 at Port San Antonio and takes place on Saturdays throughout the school year from 8:30 a.m. to about 12:30 p.m., depending on field trips. It requires a student’s commitment for three years, and most stick through it, LCATS organizers said.

The program goes through the school year only and pauses for the summer. The space STEM program creates a pathway to higher education for students who otherwise wouldn’t have access to such programs due to race or gender discrimination, said Louise Cantwell, executive director of the WEX Foundation.

The deadline to register is Aug. 25.

LCATS is usually a student’s first introduction to space STEM or space science, said Kathryn Bolish, logistics manager for the WEX Foundation.

“What we’re really trying to do is not only introduce them to space science but build a passion they may already have for themselves,” Bolish said. “Aerospace or mechanical engineering, even programs like architecture or music, we’re able to put that in the LCATS program and show [students] their passions are applicable not only on Earth, but in space.”

Students who join the program will work on real challenges presented by NASA to Astroport. With engineering professionals, LCATS students made a lunar regolith simulant, a material replicating dirt on the surface of the moon.

The regolith is used to work on projects with Astroport interns, like the Brick Bot, a robot that LCATS students work on. The robot is a prototype that houses an induction heater that will go to the moon, pick up the moon dirt, funnel it into the induction heater, melt it and print bricks for development on the moon. The Brick Bot is only a working model; then the project moves into phase two and phase three, using NASA’s models and robots.

The LCATS program began in 2016 with a $1.2 million NASA grant. Before the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020, the WEX Foundation graduated three cohorts of LCATS students.

Frank Lucci, an LCATS alumnus, said the program teaches students how to think like an engineer.

“We learned a huge amount about the moon and the volcanoes and cave systems that used to have lava on them,” he said.

Last year, Lucci’s cohort got to build a 3-D prototype of NASA’s RASSOR robot, a digger that digs soil and empties it out.

In their first year, LCATS students learn about sensing capabilities, like measuring heat, distance and light; and in the final year, students simulate a lunar mission at a local cave. In past years the students worked at the Robber Baron Cave and caves at the Kickapoo Cavern State Park.

During the second year, students learn about robotics, lunar lava tube habitation challenges, regolith hazards and current problems NASA is facing.

“Our students learn a lot about the lunar lava tubes in this program,” said Bolish. “They learn what it takes to live and habitate on the surface of the moon, but also how to get there and how to work with astronauts and science to do research on the materials, like lunar regolith.”

Astroport Mechanical Engineer Milton Cordova (left) works with summer intern Frank Lucci, 15, to test a prototype for a NASA project Tuesday.
Astroport mechanical engineer Milton Cordova (left) works with summer intern Frank Lucci, 15, to test a prototype for a NASA project Tuesday. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

Lucci, a high school student at BASIS Shavano, a charter school in North San Antonio, tested a prototype on Tuesday at the Astroport Space Tech lab across the street from Port San Antonio. He already wanted to study aerospace engineering and said the program encouraged that plan.

“Aerospace is extremely important in the survival of humanity,” Lucci said. “Eventually, we’re going have to expand. That’s what we do as humans. It’s the future because we can’t just stay on the planet. Our technology is going to evolve, what we know is going to evolve. To ensure our survival, we can expand to other planets.”

Inside the Area 21 exhibit at the San Antonio Museum of Science and Technology, a hanging 3-D printer created and designed by LCATS students, UTSA students and Astroport engineers is proudly on display.

The camp is free for its students, but the foundation spends about $500 per semester for 30 students. Students from all school districts in Bexar County in eighth through 10th grade are welcome to apply.

Siddhi Raut attended the LCATS camp starting in eighth grade and said two Saturdays a month helped her grow her dream into something more tangible and helped her land an internship with NASA last summer.

“After one session ended, I would immediately look forward to the next,” she said about the LCATS program. “We have a lot of questions about the universe that remain to be answered, and I would love to take a part of that. I feel like if it weren’t for LCATS, my dream would’ve dissipated into something else entirely.”

Correction: This story has been updated to correctly state that students in eighth through 10th grade are encouraged to apply for the LCATS program.

Raquel Torres is the San Antonio Report's breaking news reporter. A 2020 graduate of Stephen F. Austin State University, her work has been recognized by the Texas Managing Editors. She previously worked...