From Ngāpuhi to NASA: Kiwi teen shoots for the stars

Xander Pou - spacebound. Credit: The Hui

Ngāpuhi's Xander Pou is a 16-year-old space nerd who's spellbound by stars.

"Stars are cool. The entire universe is made up from stars, all the elements came from stars and they come in so many pretty colours," says Xander.

He's so fascinated with outer space, he wants to find out more about what's out there.

Xander's space odyssey began early on, as a seven-year-old kid at Takanini Primary school.

"We built this rocket ship and I thought it was the coolest thing, because I just finished reading the book about stars and supernovas and nebulas and stuff. But we didn't go to space because that's not the right spacecraft."

Xander's mum Wiki Pou says at the time he was really disappointed at the end of it, because he really thought they were going to go to space.

"Xander's a kid who knows what he wants. He loves all sorts of nerdy stuff, he loves it."

Xander's still studying spacecraft as a Year 12 student at Auckland's Mt Albert Grammar school. As part of his advanced physics class they've built and launched their own rocketships that still haven't quite made it into space.

"I actually love school. Learning things is fun, it's not that bad. People don't enjoy school that much, but I love it and I like getting to hang out with my friends, getting to learn different things," says Xander.

He finds learning new things rewarding, and has a sense of satisfaction for solving complicated and complex equations.

It's fortunate for him that he loves studying so much, because Xander has dreams of being an astrophysicist.

"Astrophysicists use physics to look at the lifespan and the death of stars, nebulas, galaxies, basically planetary bodies, that's mostly their job. They also work with the engineers and stuff and trajectory and how you're going to get a spacecraft to space."

What once may have been pie in the sky is now a very real possibility. In May, Rocket Lab's historic Electron launch off the Mahia Peninsula in May propelled New Zealand's space industry into orbit - and onto NASA's radar.

"That's pretty impressive for this tiny country, being quite big in the rocket industry. Good on them for creating all these opportunities for Kiwi children," says Xander's physics teacher Sarnia Slabbert.

Ms Slabbert selected Xander and 26 of his classmates to go on the trip of a lifetime, travelling to the States for a space camp.

"The proper astronauts train in Houston, and they have all the similar facilities in Houston, so what they basically did is create a place for the public to come and experience that," she explains.

Ms Slabbert took the group to the US Space and Rocket Centre in Huntsville, Alabama, in July.

While you might think Houston is where all the action happens, this space academy offers a crash course in astronaut training and rocket design technology.

The budding space students got the chance to try out a variety of exercises specifically designed for astronauts.

"We did space missions, simulations and we had the actual people in the capsule who are simulating flying a spaceship," Xander says.

Ms Slabbert says her Mt Albert Grammar students have been exposed to multiple skills and opportunities that they can now can use what they learned at Huntsville.

The week-long training camp confirmed to Xander that he was on the right career path – but there was an important calculation that had to be made before he got the green light to go in the first place.

"It wasn't an instant yes he was going to go, we actually had to sit down and have a good talk between myself and my husband about whether or not we could actually afford it, and work out whether or not Xander would benefit from it in the long run," says Wiki.

The Pou whanau had to raise around $10,000 in just under a year.

"We were grabbing as many overtime shifts as we could, because you're fundraising but you're still living. You still have to live and keep up with your daily, weekly bills but still have a $1000 a month to go into the fundraiser pool," Ms Pou adds.

"I'm just hoping I can get to a position in my life where I can give back all that they've given to me, or even more is what I'm hoping because they've done so much for me," says Xander.

His motivation to do his whanau proud is another factor that drives his outer space ambitions.

Xander's shooting for the stars and determined to boldly go where only one other Māori has gone before.

"After this entire trip, my mind is made up and I'm going to go work for NASA. Whether I'm doing stuff in the science lab, helping them make or even build a space ship, I'm going to work for NASA."

The Hui