BY DENNIS SILVA II | email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Hayden Conner does not remember when his fascination with space started.
“I’m not sure,” the Taylor High sophomore offensive tackle said. “It was weird. Whenever I would go visit schools, they’d ask me what I wanted to major in, and I’d just say something in engineering. Eventually, I narrowed it down to mechanical, but even then I knew there was something missing. And to be honest, I don’t know what happened, but I got interested in space. I’ve just fallen in love with it.”
Just as much as he is pleased pancaking helpless defensive linemen, Conner, a four-star recruit who holds 19 offers from schools like LSU, Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, and others, is just as happy studying space. And he’s good at it.
In late January, Conner was selected to represent Taylor High School in the NASA Space Settlement Design Competition (SSDC) at the Johnson Space Center in March. It was last year at a school academic awards ceremony that Conner, who earned the boys citizenship of the year and engineering design awards, got wind of the competition.
“It was freshmen and sophomores, and the sophomores were up and a kid gets called up and they were like, ‘NASA SSDC.’ I didn’t know what it was, but I wanted it,” Conner said. “I want it. I snooped around, asked teachers how I could get involved, and I got in touch with the robotics club teacher and asked him how I could get involved.”
Conner had to write a full-page essay on why he thought he deserved to go. He wrote it, it was evaluated and he was accepted.
The basis of his essay, he said, was that through football and always playing up with older kids (Conner was a varsity player as a freshman), he learned to be a leader with any age group.
Conner will be assigned to a team of 20-plus students at the competition. Everyone will have an assigned job at a design. At the end, the group will have to present a 50-page overview of how it did.
Conner doesn’t know yet who his teammates will be or what he will be asked to design, but past design examples include a space colony that orbited Mars or the moon, and a colony on Mars that was on a train track.
The team that wins in March advances to nationals at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
“It’s incredible,” said Conner, who took engineering design as a freshman and engineering science as a sophomore. “I love how much we don’t know and how much there is to be discovered. This is an escape from football, but I also know football is not going to last forever. This will. This will take me into the real world, and when I decided what I wanted to major in, I understood football was going to be the vehicle to getting me a good education.”
Going into his freshman year, not long before he started breaching the radars of college coaches, Conner knew he wanted to study aerospace engineering in college. The subject is a combination of mechanical, electrical and chemical engineering.
“It’s about the endless possibilities of what’s out there,” he said.
All Conner remembers about the origins of his love for space was his uncle, who worked as part of the CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) for the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s most powerful particle collider.
“It was the stepping stone of me understanding of what I wanted to do when I got older,” Conner said.
Conner has a 3.8 grade-point average and always had a natural curiosity. He’s always wanted to know the answer to things.
It’s ideal in that he has a curiosity about space, a subject that he sees as having no answers.
“I’d like to be an astronaut, but I know I’m a little big for that,” joked Conner, who is 6-feet-6, 298 pounds. “I’ve always joked around and said if I get really good at this, then I’m just going to build my own spaceship. That’s far-fetched. If it doesn’t work, I’ll probably definitely work for a private space corporation like Spacex or Bigelow Aerospace, or those kinds.”
There is, however, one issue. Not a lot of schools offer aerospace engineering as a study.
“I understand why,” Conner said, “because it’s so specific and finite information.”
Conner will have his pick of colleges, but his choice will be telling: did he pick the school best for his football future or more suited for his future career?
While football comes more naturally to him, Conner said, his passion for space is stronger.
The good news is that no matter what, Conner will be set. His future, like space, is limitless.
“I’ve done the research and I’ve looked at a lot of schools that I’m looking into, and a lot of them don’t have it,” Conner said. “Like Nebraska … I love Nebraska and always have. But they don’t have it. I know if I go to a place that doesn’t have it, I’ll end up doing mechanical or electrical or something, so that I can build on that and hopefully get to aerospace when I’m out of college.”