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May 16, 2023

For information on enrollment and registration at Notre Dame, an independent, Catholic, International Baccalaureate school, please visit the admissions section of our website here.

Graduating senior says he's ready for college — and his NASA internship — thanks to his Notre Dame Prep education and many years of robotics participation.

Notre Dame Prep Class of 2023's Payton Beckman will be studying mechanical engineering at Ohio State University after a summer internship at NASA.

Lately, when one hears news of a NASA space rover, it's usually about the latest unmanned Mars rover, Perseverance, which has been on the Red Planet now for a little more than two years. Nicknamed Percy, it is building on the work of the Curiosity rover, which has been on Mars since 2012 as well as the twin Spirit and Opportunity rovers, the Sojourner rover and others throughout the years.

But for Payton Beckman and his Notre Dame Prep classmate Jackson Plas, they'll be focusing this summer on a completely different type of rover: a much larger "manned" rover designed to house two astronauts for 30-day stretches on the surface of the moon.

That's because the two graduating seniors have been chosen by NASA to participate in a special summer internship at the NASA Space Center in Houston, Texas, part of the Artemis program, which is a collaboration of more than a dozen countries to return astronauts to the moon by 2024 and then ultimately to Mars.


Beckman and Plas were chosen for the program — specifically, the manned lunar rover program — because of their extensive participation in FIRST Robotics as members of Notre Dame Prep's Killer Bees and the fact that longtime NDP robotics mentor and Stellantis/Chrysler engineer Jim Zondag recommended the boys for the program.

"Jim has a long friendship with Lucien Junkin, who is the NASA Space Exploration Vehicle's (rover) chief engineer and also a FIRST robotics mentor for a high school team in Houston," Beckman said. "The internship offer was extended basically because Jim recommended us. All we needed to do was provide an email and a name for more information. No application, no interview or anything."

Lucien Junkin, the NASA Space Exploration Vehicle's chief engineer and a FIRST robotics mentor, helped facilitate the summer internship in Houston for Beckman and Jackson Plas.

He said Zondag has known Junkin for more than 20 years due to NASA's longstanding partnership with FIRST Robotics. It also probably didn't hurt that Beckman and Plas have been part of one of the more successful robotics programs in the country.

"Lucien runs the Innovation Lab at Johnson Space Center and works on the rover program," Beckman noted. "And he also recruits many NASA engineers through FIRST Robotics."


It wouldn't be too much of a stretch to imagine Plas and Beckman someday working as full-time engineers in Houston for NASA. Plas is heading to Clemson University in the fall to study chemical engineering and Beckman plans to study mechanical engineering at Ohio State University as part of the Mount Scholars Leadership Program. Beckman also was awarded a National Buckeye Scholarship worth $54,000 over four years.

"What attracts me to the College of Engineering at Ohio State, specifically mechanical engineering, is to learn more about how things work and the math behind the choices used to solve problems," he said. "I really enjoy getting to an understanding of all the concepts behind each solution."

Beckman and Plas are with fellow Killer Bees in a photo taken during last year's season. Longtime NDP robotics mentor Jim Zondag is shown second from left.

Long term, Beckman always planned to go into an engineering career, possibly in the field of motorsports or automotive OEM engineering. But he's also open to learning more about what a mechanical engineering role at NASA might look like and how being an intern there might adjust his future career path.

"I hope that having a strong background in education from both NDP and Ohio State will enable me to find a position where I can use my strengths, contribute to society in a positive way, and enjoy what I do," said Beckman, who first came to Notre Dame Prep as a fifth grader from Cedar Crest Academy in Clarkston. 

An early prototype of the NASA rover. Photo by Olivier Touron//Getty Images (Popular Mechanics)

"My family decided to find a school program back then that would give me a greater academic challenge. Plus, the outstanding robotics programs at NDP also drew me to the school."

He says he's always been a big fan of robotics, starting with VEX IQ all the way to finishing as team captain on the Killer Bees.


Beckman said he loved his NDP education, but missed being in school during the pandemic. His fond memories in high school included when the robotics team was being cheered on in division finals by other local teams. 

"Another one is winning Irish Week this year," he said. "One of my favorite classes was Mrs. Pakkala and AP Physics. I liked the frequent labs that allowed us to apply what we learned in class, which also was very entertaining."

Looking ahead now, Beckman is quite confident that he is as prepared for the challenges of college (and NASA) as anyone.

"I feel ready for college and the next steps," he said. "The types of skills that many college freshmen struggle with, like studying independently, time management, working on group projects, presenting, etc., are all skills I've learned and worked on at Notre Dame Prep. While I know that every new step in life will present challenges, I believe I will definitely be ready for them!"

Beckman is with his parents at a visit to Ohio State University in Columbus.

For information on enrollment and registration at Notre Dame, an independent, Catholic, International Baccalaureate school, please visit the admissions section of our website here.

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Follow Notre Dame on Twitter at @NDPMA.

About Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy
Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy is a private, Catholic, independent, coeducational day school located in Oakland County. Notre Dame Preparatory School enrolls students in grades nine through twelve and has been named one of the nation's best 50 Catholic high schools (Acton Institute) four times since 2005. Notre Dame's middle and lower schools enroll students in pre-kindergarten through grade eight. All three schools are International Baccalaureate "World Schools." NDPMA is conducted by the Marist Fathers and Brothers and is accredited by the Independent Schools Association of the Central States and the National Association of Independent Schools. For more on Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy, visit the school’s home page at