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Niko Blanks, far right, is shown prior to the premiere of "The Mars Generation" at this year's Sundance Film Festival. He is shown with some of the other young Space Academy attendees who star in the film.
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Some of the members of the Space Academy group that were filmed as part of "The Mars Generation" are shown at the film's premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.Niko Blanks and fellow camp attendees were filmed doing a variety of experiments for "The Mars Generation." The film opened Sundance and Blanks and crew did the full red carpet treatment, and answered questions from the audience after the screening.

Space Camp

Space Camp launched in 1982 and was the brainchild of Dr. Wernher von Braun. It’s open to students in the fourth grade through high school. Attendees learn teamwork, leadership and decision-making as they learn about space, robotics and aviation.

 

Like some high school students, Baylor School senior Niko Blanks has plans to get as far away as he possible can after graduation, only it's not because he doesn't like his family or Chattanooga. He likes both just fine.

It's just that, the way he sees it, he is the perfect age to one day get to Mars.

"That is my main goal, yes. To be an astronaut."

The would-be space man believes a manned mission to Mars might take place in the next 10 to 30 years and, since he will be 28 in a decade, he thinks his chances are good. At the very least, he hopes to become an astronaut and make it into space one day soon.

He's not alone. In the summer of 2015, filmmaker Michael Barnett and crew followed Blanks and several other attendees at a special Space Academy at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala. The result is the Netflix film "The Mars Generation." Blanks is not sure when it will be available to the general public, but it was screened at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, last month: Yes, he was on the red carpet for the premiere.

"That was pretty crazy," he says. "Our movie was the first one shown for the whole festival, so it got a lot of attention. We did a Q&A up on stage afterwards, too."

Blanks is listed third on IMDB.com's roster of the film's stars.

Becoming an astronaut has always been his goal. His grandfather, Lee Aken, helped spark his interest by showing him films like "Apollo 13" and "October Sky."

"He told me that his father helped install the radar systems that track satellites around the world," Blanks says.

His Signal Mountain bedroom looks pretty much like you would expect of a young person infatuated with space. The walls are covered with posters about space and there is a large model of the Saturn V — the rocket used by NASA from 1967 to 1973 and took astronauts to the moon — as well as an 8-inch Dobsonian telescope.

He does well in math and science at Baylor and hopes to attend Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., though he also has looked at Purdue University, which is known for producing astronauts. His teachers say he is a bright student who has always shown an interest in aeronautics.

"I've actually known Niko since he was a baby, since his grandmother was a Baylor teaching colleague of mine for many years," says Baylor precalculus teacher Dan Kennedy.

"His mother, Camby, grew up on the Baylor campus. His first-semester portfolio project in my precalculus class showed his passion for aeronautics, which he hopes to nurture at Embry-Riddle after graduating from Baylor," Kennedy says.

"He was in the right place at the right time to land his role in 'The Mars Generation,' and thus to become my first student in 44 years at Baylor to miss class to attend a premiere screening at the Sundance Film Festival."

Blanks' astronomy teacher, Bob Olson, says the teen is a quick study as well.

"Niko has a genuine interest in science, particularly in astronomy, and is quick to absorb new information and techniques for solving scientific problems," Olson says.

Blanks has visited as many camps dedicated to space as he can, having attended his first Space Camp in Huntsville at age 14; he has been two more times since. He's also gone to Huntsville four times for the Aviation Challenge, which is more of a military-style camp with simulated combat scenarios, and he's been down to Daytona Beach, where he spent a week at camp at Embry-Riddle twice.

Some of the camps are a week and some are three weeks. Anyone can attend Space Camp, but you must be invited to the Space Academy, which is where the Netflix crew followed Blanks and his group of 14 fellow campers for a week.

"I got an email from someone with the film crew, asking if I would be interested in being filmed. I said 'Yes' immediately," he recalls.

The crew filmed the campers working through a series of experiments.

"They filmed us launching rockets that we'd made. You had to put an egg in it. Our egg survived," Blanks says.

"We had to build a space suit and we built a filtration system because everything in a space station is recycled. They put glitter, food coloring, mud, all kinds of stuff in the water."

Blanks says his team didn't have as much luck cleaning the water as they did with the egg. The campers also went scuba diving in the giant tank similar to the one astronauts train in for working in space.

"It was all fun and educational," Blanks says.

The rapid advancements in technology, as well as recent interest in space exploration, including a possible manned mission to Mars by NASA and private individuals or groups such as Inspiration Mars, Mars One and The Mars Society, give him reason to believe he has a chance of living his dream. NASA, for instance, hopes to land a person on Mars by the 2030s.

And many others share his dream. The space camps are well attended, with dozens of young people coming to them from around the world, he says. People in his "The Mars Generation" group came from Colorado, Virginia, Florida, Massachusetts, Washington State and Washington, D.C.

But not everyone at camp wants to go into space necessarily. Some are interested in medicine, geology or technology as it relates to space. Blanks believes young people see a future based on what we can learn from the universe around us.

"We are starting a whole new space race and it will be exciting to see how much we are going to learn."

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.

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