LOOK TO THE SKIES: Astronomy buff Jo Hancox will get a first-hand look at a NASA take-off in July. Photo: BELINDA SOOLEGazing through a telescope at balls of gas light-years away is one thing, but mingling with the crew from NASA as a space shuttle takes to the skies is quite another.

A cloud of smoke and a deafening roar will mark lift-off at the Kennedy Space Centre in Orlando this July and, as an official guest of NASA, local astronomy buff Jo Hancox will be at the centre of it all.

The teenager will jet set to America in July as part of The Ultimate USA Space Science Tour hosted by Young Astronauts Australia.

He is among a group of 40 young space enthusiasts selected for the tour after he took part in a four-day astronomy course at the University of Newcastle in the summer holidays.

Jo says the shuttle launch – which will include listening to Mission Control describe last-minute checks, counting down to take-off and watching the launch pads fill with water as the boosters are ignited – is bound to be the highlight of the 13-day adventure.

He said the trip also included visits to the Johnson Space Centre in Houston and NASA’s Ellington Airfield as well as trips to tourist hot spots in Washington such as the FBI building and Smithsonian museums.

“I was hoping I’d be chosen to go,” the Year 10 Dubbo College Senior Campus student said.

“I’ve been interested in astronomy and space science since I was about five or six years old – I like exploring a seeing what no one else has seen before.”

Twenty-eight students were selected for the astronomy course in Newcastle, who were all then offered the opportunity to go on the American tour.

Jo said watching Saturn as the Huygens space probe landed on the planet’s moon, Titan, during the course was “pretty amazing”.

“I was looking through the telescope at Saturn while it landed – we had about four different telescopes set up at the time, it was so exciting” he said.

One of Jo’s role models, Siding Springs Observatory astronomer Fred Watson, also gave a lecture at the astronomy course.

“Fred Watson would be one of the astronomers I look up to, him and anyone involved in sending space probes – I’m not really interested in becoming an astronaut,” he said.

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