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Ozarks Life: Wheaton grad helping NASA return to Mars

Erisa Stilley is an operations lead for the Perseverance Rover
Published: Jan. 29, 2021 at 9:01 AM CST
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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (KY3) - Graduates are often told to reach for the stars.

One Ozarks woman took that literally.

When you think of Wheaton, Missouri, you think of agriculture. You don’t think of interplanetary travel.

A 1998 Wheaton High School graduate set her sights higher than the town’s water tower.

“Take advantage of every opportunity that you get,” Erisa Stilley said, “you don’t know what it’s going to lead to.”

It led Erisa, then known as Erisa Hines, to earn a Masters in aerospace engineering from MIT.

“If you asked me 20 years ago,” Erisa reflects, “I never had a plan for NASA.”

In 2012 Erisa was a part of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory celebrating the Curiosity rover’s touchdown on Mars.

Since then, she’s spent the past seven years planning a return to the Red Planet as an operations lead for the upcoming Perseverance Rover’s landing in February.

“It’s the first time we’re looking for ancient signs of life on another planet,” Stilley said.

It’s Erisa’s job to calculate the landing and then re-calculate, and calculate again. She has to make sure the rover touches down safely so it can take a sample of Martian soil.

“(Then) store those samples for a future mission to bring it back to Earth,” Stilley said.

Where 108-million miles away, there’s a small town in Barry County proud to give a young dreamer a solid foundation.

“NASA, when you think of that,” longtime Wheaton resident Dale Forgey amazed, “she came from this school.”

“One of the opportunities I had at Wheaton was to be a part of the Upward Bound Math and Science Program at Crowder (Community College),” Stilley said.

A simple pre-college course opening a discussion.

“A talk in our kitchen got me to think of engineering,” Erisa remembers from her senior year.

Guiding to the Ozarks playing a role on a return to Mars and the search for life beyond Earth.

“She was a dreamer,” Forgey said. “Dream big; knowing what you want and go after that. She did that and with the help from a lot of people in this small community.”

“The best part of this job is getting to inspire the next generation of explorers,” Stilley said.

Perseverance will land on Mars the Thursday after Valentines Day, February 18.

NASA will live stream the event as well as briefings leading up to the landing and you can watch it here on NASA’s YouTube Channel.

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