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Homewood-Flossmoor alum part of team that altered orbit of asteroid

Homewood-Flossmoor alum part of successful NASA mission
Homewood-Flossmoor alum part of successful NASA mission 02:46

FLOSSMOOR, Ill. (CBS) – It's been hailed as a historic mission.

Last month, NASA successfully launched a spacecraft into an asteroid millions of miles away, altering the course of its orbit.

The test could provide scientists with a blueprint for saving the earth from asteroid strikes in the future.

And a former suburban student played a key role in the mission.

CBS 2's Marybel Gonzalez went to Homewood-Flossmoor High School where the engineer graduated 35 years ago.

The alumna, Michelle Chen, is part of a team working to ward off threats to humankind from outerspace. All of that, she said, started in a math classroom at Homewood-Flossmoor Community High School.

Back in 1987, as a senior at Homewood-Flossmoor, Chen said she suffered from teen angst.

"I hid quite a bit of myself, you know, because you're trying to fit in," she said.

But even then, Chen said she knew she always wanted to help others.

"It really wasn't just gratuitous that I was able to end up doing something as a test demonstration," she said. "If we were ever to do this in real life, I would be saving a lot of people."

Fast forward to 2022, and it turns out she may have helped save all of humankind.

Chen formed part of NASA's double asteroid redirection test or DART, a first-of-its-kind test mission that purposefully crashed a spacecraft into an asteroid named Dimorphos, 7 million miles away.

"This really was NASA's prevention to see if we could nudge an asteroid and change its overall course," she said.

Chen, an engineer at Johns Hopkins University, led the team that helped create a set of algorithms called SMART Nav that guided the spacecraft to its target last month.

The mission was a success. For Chen though, this moment all kicked off with advice she learned from her Homewood-Flossmoor calculus teacher, Mr. Jack Wayne.

"He reminded all of us to always ask the question 'why?'" she said. "To not take anything for granted and to always sort of investigate and wonder why some phenomenon occurs."

CBS 2 caught up with Wayne to share Chen's words.

"It makes a teacher feel good if you have some impact," he said.

He's been retired since 1994, but said he still loves math and physics and is happy that his students, like Chen, still do too.

"Keep up the good work," he said. "Mathematics warms her heart, my heart ... I wish her well."

As for Chen, she did have some advice for students at her alma mater: To embrace what makes you different because without the diversity of her team and their skillset, she said, the mission wouldn't have been possible.

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