Space cadets describe turbulent flight to victory

“We started this Passage a year ago, sitting on a bench in the Peace Garden … thinking of where we would be in a year,” Anirudh Aggarwal, Class of 2020 and co-founder of the NASA Passage at Woodstock, said.

Recently, Aggarwal, along with co-founder Joshua Lyndem, Class of 2020, and eight other members, from the Class of 2020 including Nitya Mahajan, Muskan Negi, Rajat Gupta, Ryan Bajaj, Aditi Deswal, Rigpea Wangchuk, Rohan Mathias, and Carlos Rodrigues, went to Delhi to compete in the regional NASA space settlement competition.

As they reminisced about the origins of their struggle to get the Passage functioning, Aggarwal and Lyndem went back to the beginning, after their talk in the peace garden. According to Lyndem, the “dream that [they] were introducing something to this community” pushed them to make the NASA club a reality. And so they did.

Initially, however, it was a challenge.

“When we got people in, we had an interview process,” Aggarwal said. When they told some people that they could not make the club, Aggarwal added, “We got so much s*** from them.” People started to complain about their decision-making. Aggarwal and Lyndem felt as if they were creating more “beef” between people in the Class of 2020.

“Most of the people doubted us as well. Half of the grade doubted us. They think, ‘these two people, they’re quiet.’ They can’t do it,’” Lyndem said.

Another comment they heard, according to Aggarwal, was: “It’s just another project that’s gonna go down.”

They managed to persist despite the doubts, acquiring “half of the grade”  in their team during that summer. However, that summer, a lot of the people that committed themselves to the club were flooding Aggarwal’s mailbox with resignation letters.

“People started leaving the Passage over summer, saying, ‘Anirudh, I have too many APs,’” Aggarwal said. “That’s when everything went down. During the summer break, we wanted to quit this Passage. We didn’t have a team to work around.”

Despite that, when they came back from break, Lyndem and Aggarwal pushed for the club to continue, because it would be “unfair to the people who did work.” They started the club with over 30 people. Now, they were down to “nine people.”

“These nine people were highly against each other. We had procrastinators, we still do. I thought that this team didn’t have what it takes to be on that stand,” Aggarwal said.

“It was a chaos at that time.”

In confusion, the two leaders went to their staff advisor, Ms. Andeep Kaur, for help. She told them to keep pushing forward because of all the blood and soul they have already committed to the project.

As their deadline to submit their space settlement proposal was drawing nearer, pressure seeped into the team. It was the week before Activity Week that things started to finally click.

“It was the day before Activity Week. Everybody around us was in a chill mood, watching movies and hanging out with friends. Nine of us were in Hostel Commons sitting down and working our a**** off,” Aggarwal said. That was the time that he realized that “this team is the team.”

“We were shouting at each other. Throwing insults at each other. We weren’t in our right minds then as well. It was insane,” Lyndem added as he reflected on the intensity of their impending deadline at midnight that day.

However, the dorm parents were strict, allowing the students a small “10-minute extension” after the time gadgets were due. “It felt like the whole world was against us. We were just fighting against it,” Aggarwal said. The team managed to quickly pile everything up and clicked the “submit” button.

What followed was a moment of pure tension.

“Anirudh and I sat down in his room. We were like so tensed up: would we make it? would we not make it?” Lyndem said.

“Nobody was in the dorm,” Aggarwal added.

“He was talking about how he had dreams in his hike that happened the previous night–” Lyndem said.

“Literally dreams, I’m not even kidding,” Aggarwal interrupted.

“–how we reached the Indian nationals. Everybody cheering,” Lyndem continued. “When we got the email that we qualified, we were screaming at the top of our lungs.”

“We were crazy people that day. Literally, all the messages we sent, I look back at them and I was like: What the hell is this message?” Aggarwal added. “‘We won! We won! We made it.’”

The Woodstock NASA team qualified and were now invited to compete at the national level at the NASA center in Delhi.

“When we went there, people were thinking that these were kids from dumb schools: ‘What the hell was Woodstock doing here? They don’t know anything. They’re not smart,’” Aggarwal said as he reflected on their first day of the competition.

However, the Woodstock delegation persisted, powering through the competition with “team unity and spirit.”

“The team itself worked so hard,” Aggarwal said. He recounted how his team, alongside other school delegations, worked from “7 a.m. to 7 a.m. the next day” on their joint proposal to be sent to the judging board, which was comprised of prestigious Indian scientists and engineers.

“We didn’t sleep. We drank Redbull like it was water. We ate whatever we got,” Aggarwal said. “Nobody was expected to be there, yet everyone was there. The whole team was there. That was the greatest part of it: When we were mentally, physically, and socially involved into this whole thing.”

After working for an entire day nonstop, the Woodstock delegation handed in their proposal on a USB drive to the judges. They were so tired that they slept and “snored” through all the other schools’ presentations during their final assembly. However, when it was time for Woodstock’s presentations, all eyes lit up. They proceeded to the stage.

“The judges started roasting us, these engineers and scientists. Anita E. Gale, one of the first female engineers in NASA, was one of them,” Aggarwal said. “She was a very rude lady.”

“She wouldn’t tolerate any nonsense,” Lyndem added, pointing out that she noticed the smallest calculation errors.

However, after the harsh scrutiny, the Woodstock team triumphed. They came second in the entire competition.

“Our CEO, an engineer, said, ‘Honestly, I didn’t expect that from a new team over here. It’s amazing how you guys worked. It’s incredible to see Woodstock bringing kids here and seeing them working is insane,’” Aggarwal said, “We never expected this team to work in NASA. But you guys proved us all wrong.’”

“We were all proud,” Lyndem added.

Now, the NASA team is working on resending their proposal to qualify for the international space settlement competition in America. Even now, there are many conflicts within the group regarding power, authority, commitment, and dedication.

“People began realizing how hard it is to be in a position of power. It’s not just about shoving it in people’s faces or being out there,” Aggarwal said. “There’s a lot of responsibility that comes with power.”

Furthermore, the team was starting to lose motivation. “It’s like we’re submitting the same proposal over and over again. People don’t feel that it’s something new. People want to do something new,” Lyndem added.

“There were breakdowns. There are people who are still crying about this project. If I call them up right now, they’ll still be crying,” Aggarwal said.

However, just like before in the national stage, the group is pushing. Pushing hard for the final moments to click that “submit button.”

Asked about the most important things they have learned from this Passage, Aggarwal said, “The world around us is really, really cruel. It doesn’t care where you’re from or who you are. What it cares is are you doing your work or not. Are you working hard enough? Are you putting everything you have in it or not?”

Lyndem added, “I realized that there are a lot of people who have ego issues and different personalities. Working with them will be difficult. Sometimes, you just have to compromise. You can’t just like wish that they were like you or somebody else you work with. You just gotta work with them.”

Lyndem and Aggarwal plan to open up the club to younger students, specifically from grade 9 onwards.

“We want to show people, that, you know what, you guys can also do it,” Aggarwal said.

“Rocket science isn’t that hard, after all.”

Edited by Rohan Menezes

Photo by Dhrubhagat Singh

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