Michael Schaffner recalls reading about advancements in robotics and NASA's space shuttle program while growing up in the 1980s, events that helped develop his affinity for science and engineering.
Now Schaffner, a University of Arizona undergraduate researcher, is putting that childhood passion to practice, working with other researchers to expand knowledge about water deposits on the Earth's moon.
"The moon is one of those places where it is a fundamental first step. If we want to have a chance for a multiplenatary voyage, we have to conquer the moon first," said Schaffner, a UA senior studying systems engineering.
And because of his involvement with UA research investigating the location and behaviors of hydrogen on the moon, Schaffner has been selected to take his research to the nation's capital during the Council on Undergraduate Research, or CUR, Posters on the Hill event.
Schaffner is one of 74 students out of pool of 850 applicants selected to present their research in Washington, D.C. as part of CUR's 16th annual undergraduate poster session.
To be held April 24, students in a broad range of disciplines will have the chance to speak with congressional representatives and senators, and also members of national organizations and other government agencies.
CUR affirms that supporting undergraduate researchers and connecting them with policymakers, namely members of the U.S. Congress, is increasingly important, and it is one of the driving reasons behind Posters on the Hill.
The event, then, is meant to ensure that policymakers "who provide funding for research and education have a clear understanding of the programs they fund and why these programs are important," according to CUR's site. "Nothing more effectively demonstrates the value of undergraduate research than the words and stories of the student participants themselves."
Schaffner will exhibit a poster, "Water on the Moon: Remote Sensing from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter."
He conducted the research as an undergraduate intern for the Arizona Space Grant Consortium. Schaffner worked with William Boynton, a UA professor for the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, and other collaborators.
The team is working to develop a better understanding of where specific particles are located on the moon, and how they react, to help scientists determine where water deposits might be located on the rock.
"Unfortunately, that's a pretty complicated subject," Schaffner said, adding that variation in thermal energy and in the moon's temperature, along with other natural processes, contribute to the challenge.
"With the wild temperature swings, it's difficult to model where the hydrogen might be if, one minute, it's a gas and the next minute it freezes," Schaffner said.
Utilizing Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter sensors, the team has been analyzing detections of neutrons and is now taking novel approach by focusing on a slice of the moon, and over a period of time.
"We're going for averages. Two of the scientists suggested that if you look at that sliver around the same time of day, we could look hour by hour of a lunar day over a period," Schaffner said, adding that the model ensures improved accuracy and reliability of information.
"Up until this point there have been few empirical studies on these natural processes on the moon," he said. "We have samples from a few spots on the moon from 20 years ago. They don't tell us much about the natural processes going on, so there is a lot more work to do."
Schaffner, who began the pursuit toward an undergraduate degree after a few years working as a technical support consultant, has an interest in remote sensing and background in statistics and software development – all of which have proven beneficial for the team.
And he has been especially grateful for the opportunity to work under an interdisciplinary project and to also share his investigations with policymakers.
"All of this work lends itself to being collaborative," he said, noting that specialists in astrobiology engineering, software development and management, statistics and data interpretation are among those involved.
As for continuing studies of the moon, Schaffner said such investigations are critical for current understanding and future generations the world around.
That's part of the message he plans to impart in D.C.
"We want to learn things and progress our knowledge to accomplish more and to expand humanity's boundaries," Schaffner said.
"Landing on the moon was huge, but at this point the moon remains a place we really can't habitate, and it remains a place that we have to be able to take advantage of," he said. "But to do that, we have to be able to harness the resources it already has."