Students honor former astronaut with outdoor sculpture of solar system, hope to inspire others in STEM

May 10, 2012

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – An interactive sculpture of the planetary system, about a football field in length, will crown a new mall at the south end of Purdue's Discovery Park.

Purdue students in a service-learning class designed the sculpture -Visiting Our Solar System, VOSS - and named it in honor of the late Janice Voss, a Purdue alumna who flew on five shuttle missions. Trustees and other Purdue leaders will get their first look at a three-foot high model at 3 p.m. Friday (May 11) on the future mall.

Completion of the mall, between the Hall for Discovery and Learning Research and Terry House west of Martin Jischke Drive, is expected in 2013. VOSS will be added in 2014 with spiral walkways and a model of the sun standing as much as 30 feet in diameter, while Saturn will be 4 feet and Earth 6 inches. Each planet will be lighted and suspended from 6-foot-high curved walls. Jeff Laramore teamed with Tom Fansler of Smock Fansler Construction, both of Indianapolis, to be selected as the artists from 10 entries in a national design contest.

"The sculpture not only speaks to Purdue's role in space exploration, but it also will inspire future generations," President France A. Córdova said. "The location in front of the Discovery Learning Research Center is ideal because this is a hub for faculty and staff dedicated to fostering interest and developing abilities in science, technology, engineering and math."

Professor Barrett Caldwell, director of the Indiana Space Grant Consortium, challenged EPICS students to develop a model that would inspire interest in the STEM disciplines as well as space exploration. Caldwell and First Gentleman Chris Foster, Purdue's K-12 STEM coordinator, met with the students frequently on the project, while their adviser, Tim Strueh, a Purdue graduate and engineer at TRW in Lafayette, met with them weekly.

Planning began in 2009. At any one time about 13 students have been involved, including team leader Rachael Fulper of Indianapolis, who started work on VOSS as a freshman and is now a senior, majoring in physics and mathematics. Now that the model is done, the university is seeking about $1.5 million in donations to support the project, and students are turning their attention to developing a website and supplementary activities and materials for teachers.

"I really enjoy the educational aspects and working with students," said Fulper, who dreams of becoming an astronaut if not a research scientist. "I want to get students excited about space just like I was growing up. Science is awesome."

This year the EPICS program, directed by associate professor William Oakes, had 700 students at work on one of 80 efforts for the community.

The students named it for VOSS in 2010 in honor of her devotion to student learning and engagement. Voss, who died this February, became an astronaut in 1991, one of 23 Purdue graduates NASA has selected for space flight. She had logged five space flights, spending a total of 49 days in space and traveling 18.8 million miles in 779 Earth orbits.

In 2000 Voss set her spacesuit aside and most recently led the payload effort for NASA's station integration branch of the astronaut office, with a focus on the international space station.

Voss was a champion of the space program and spent time on campus and around the country talking about what it takes to have the "right stuff," whether as an astronaut or as one of the many more who support the program from Earth.

"In an era when no one knows who the astronauts are as individuals - unless we are wearing our flight suits, most people don't recognize me - everyone still wants to hear our story," Voss said. "I have been able to use that spark of interest to help children and high school students understand the importance of studying science and math."

Voss earned her bachelor's degree in engineering sciences in 1975 from Purdue and her doctorate in aeronautics and astronautics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Writer: Jeanne Norberg, 765-494-2084;

Sources: Rachael Fulper,, 317-513-4257

                  William Oakes, 765 494-3892,

                  Barrett Caldwell, 765-494-5412,

                  Don Staley, senior landscape architect, 765 49-43424,

Related news release:
Purdue 'space odyssey' loses Janice Voss

Note to Journalists: Journalists are invited to view the model along with Purdue trustees and administrators at 3 p.m. Friday (May 11) under a tent west of Martin Jischke Drive and north of the Discovery Learning Research Center. Astronaut Janice Voss was born in South Bend, Ind., and her parents live in Dupont, Ind.