Douglas McDonnell will complete his project on Mars.

All Eagle Scout service projects are helpful, friendly and kind.

Some are out of this world.

Later this year, Douglas McDonnell, a 16-year-old Life Scout in the Circle Ten Council, will become the first Scout to complete an Eagle Scout service project on another planet.

The aspiring computer programmer, who hopes to one day work at NASA, will program the Mars rover Perseverance to prepare the red planet for future human visitors.

“The first humans on Mars will be 140 million miles from home,” Douglas says. “But we’re trying to make their Martian home as comfortable as possible while they’re there. My hope is to make them feel like they’re on a long camping trip — except at a place with no trees, lakes or breathable air.”

Most of the work will be done remotely, though NASA is working on plans to send Douglas to Mars in the summer of 2022 so he can pose for an “after” photo next to his project.

Even though it will be competed from afar, Douglas’ project will be just as rigorous as any Eagle project. He has created a project plan, raised funds, assembled a team and delegated tasks to the adults and youth who will help him.

Some of those helpers are Scouts who have earned the Space Exploration merit badge. Others are volunteers who have earned Ph.D.s in computer science or aerospace engineering. In Scouting, everyone has a place.

What’s the project?

Like many aspiring Eagle Scouts, Douglas has chosen a construction-based project. He will remotely tell Perseverance to complete three separate building tasks:

  • Build a picnic table for astronauts and other guests. Perhaps they’ll use it to enjoy a lovely Martian lunch of Tang, “beef” stroganoff and those freeze-dried ice cream sandwiches that seemed like a good idea at the time.
  • Construct a portable bridge that can be positioned anywhere on the planet, in case water is discovered and astronauts don’t want to just walk around it.
  • Craft a campfire ring (purely decorative, since Mars doesn’t have enough oxygen for an actual fire to burn).

How will Douglas tell the rover what to do?

Depending on the position of the planets at the time, it takes a radio signal between five and 20 minutes to get from the Earth to Mars. That means Douglas will need patience and, yes, perseverance as he sends each command to the rover.

I asked Olaf Sprilo, the BSA’s chief rocket scientist, to help readers understand just how long each step of the project could take, given the delay. I found him in his basement office — hair disheveled and fingers covered in chalk dust — working on a recipe for a pineapple upside-down cake that can be eaten right-side up.

“Normally you bake the cake with the fruit on the bottom,” Sprilo tells me as I walk in, “but if my calculations are correct and you use 17.35 coals on top of the Dutch oven and 7.65 coals underneath, you should be able to —”

He trailed off, deep in thought. Four hours later, after learning way more than I needed to know about the pH levels of pineapples, I was able to steer Sprilo back to the topic at hand: Douglas’ project.

“You have to remember that each time [Douglas] instructs the rover to turn a screw, that’s one command,” Sprilo says, gesturing so wildly that he knocks over a jar of maraschino cherries. “Each screw needs six turns, and the picnic table alone requires 36 screws. That’s 216 commands, painstakingly sent one by one, you see? At an average of 12 minutes per delivery of each command, it will take him about 43 hours and 12 minutes of nonstop work to complete the table!”

I had just two questions for Sprilo:

  1. Did you do that math in your head?
  2. Do you think Douglas can pull it off?

“The first thing they teach you in rocket scientist school is that building a picnic table on Mars isn’t easy,” Sprilo says. “But if anyone can do it, a Scout can.”

Douglas’ fascination with Mars rovers began in his little brother’s Pinewood Derby.

Inspiration strikes

To learn what sparked Douglas’ interest in Mars, rocketry and computers, you’d need to invent a time machine and travel way back to the year 2016.

Or actually, if you’re short on time, you could just read the next three paragraphs.

In 2016, NASA released a computer rendering of its next Mars rover, which a Scout would later name Perseverance. Douglas, who had been interested in space since kindergarten, was awestruck by the design and its possibilities.

That same year, Douglas’ little brother, Evan, was preparing to compete in Pack 16’s Pinewood Derby. Evan is just as space-obsessed as Douglas, and so together they designed a car that looked just like NASA’s newest creation. Like its real-life counterpart, Evan’s rover had six high-traction wheels, an array of working cameras … and a top speed of 4.2 centimeters per second.

“It finished last,” Douglas says. “Like, dead last. They were able to complete six other races on lanes 1 through 5 while Evan’s car took its time heading down lane 6. But he did win the award for Most Wheels.”

Douglas’ interest only grew from there. He started building working models of the Mars rover. Next, using skills he learned in the Robotics merit badge, he began programming his rover to follow his commands.

When it was time to begin planning his Eagle project, Douglas dreamed big. He didn’t shoot for the moon but for Mars, emailing NASA with his project plan.

“I figured the worst they could do is say, ‘Sorry, but after careful consideration we won’t be able to let a teenager control our $2.7 billion rover,’” Douglas says. “But they actually said yes. Surprisingly quick, to be honest. Like, I almost said, ‘Don’t you need to ask a supervisor or something?’”

Is an off-planet project even allowed?

An Eagle project must be, according to the BSA’s official guidelines, “helpful to any religious institution, any school or your community.”

But since nobody can call Mars their community — that we know of! — how does Douglas’ project qualify?

Our answer is in the BSA’s Guide to Advancement, which says that the definition of community can be expanded to mean “the community of the world.”

There’s little doubt that Douglas’ project will help people on our planet as they travel to another.

From the Guide to Advancement, section, “Helpful to Any Religious Institution, Any School, or Your Community”:

“Any religious institution” and “any school” are self- explanatory. But what does “your community” mean? In today’s world of instant communications and speedy travel, we are affected more and more by what goes on all over the world. Prices for goods and services, investment values, our very safety, and how we feel about those less fortunate in other countries, all are involved. Thus, if Scouts want to take their oath “to help other people” more expansively and put their project to work for the “community of the world,” they are allowed to do so. A council may emphasize more local efforts but should not deny worthy projects of a wider scope.

What will Scouts do next?

Scouts never cease to amaze me with their talents, dedication and creativity.

Whether planning headline-making Eagle projects, serving their community during a time of need or saving the life of a stranger, Scouts do out-of-this-world things every day.

What will your Scout accomplish next? I can’t wait to find out.

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