Ellie Murray '20


NCSSM senior Ellie Murray has her eyes on the moon

Sooner or later, NCSSM senior Eleanor “Ellie” Murray realizes, the earth will become uninhabitable. Whether it’s human-caused catastrophes that drive us away or the last gasps of the sun, we’ll all have to pack our bags for a new home outside the solar system.

“If we’re going to do that,” Ellie says, “we may as well lay the groundwork now.”

Ellie is the latest in a line of Unicorn women who have looked to the stars. In the 1980s, a few years before coming to NCSSM, now-retired long-time chemistry instructor Myra Halpin was among a short list of teachers chosen by NASA to compete for the distinction of being the first teacher in space. Joeletta Patrick, a 1992 graduate of NCSSM, served as a flight engineer for the International Space Station. And at this very moment, Christina Hammock Koch ’97 is 250 miles above the surface of the earth in that same space station, traveling at more than 17,000 miles per hour.

But Ellie has set her sights about 240,000 miles higher. That’s where the moon floats in its lonely orbit of Earth. Ellie hopes to one day bounce across its dusty, cratered surface as a moon-based aerospace engineer helping create colonies that will support humanity.

That future is a long, long way from the eighth-grade language arts class at Southern Alamance Middle School in Graham where Ellie’s reading of the 2011 science fiction novel The Martian, by Andy Weir, first piqued her interstellar imagination.

“I loved The Martian because I felt the author was good at portraying scientific concepts on a level I could understand as an eighth grader. For example, there’s a scene where Mark Watney is electrolizing every liquid he can find to make rocket fuel, which is just running electricity through it to split water, for example, into oxygen and hydrogen.”

Fascinated, Ellie flipped through her science textbook until she stumbled upon an electrolysis of water experiment.

“I remember sketching a picture of how you connected all the wires and taking it home and, like, I think I used paper clips the first time as my electrodes, and setting up a cup of water with [a battery], and waiting for those bubbles to appear. It took way longer than I thought, but I eventually did get hydrogen bubbles.”

The experiment was purely for personal interest. Ellie didn’t even tell her teacher about her project.

Two years later, as a sophomore at Southern Alamance High School, Ellie decided to do a project for a science fair. “The electrolysis of water [experiment] had never really left my mind,” she says. “Around that time there were also a lot of interesting discoveries about, ‘Hey, there’s water on the moon, there’s water on Mars,’ so I decided to investigate electrolysis of water on the moon.”

Electrolysis of lunar water could separate water into hydrogen, which could possibly be used as a fuel for moon-based systems, and oxygen, vital for sustaining human life there. Too, utilizing water already present on the moon would be far more efficient, Ellie says, than rocketing it to the moon from Earth. If scientists can effectively derive hydrogen and oxygen from lunar water, it would move humanity one step closer to successfully colonizing the moon. One small step, that is, toward a much greater leap to colonies on celestial bodies orbiting a new sun beyond our local solar system.

But as it is on Earth, lunar water will likely be contaminated with soil. Ellie’s experiment sought to discover how such a mixture might influence the energy required for electrolysis. Her results were both expected and surprising. As even a non-scientist might suspect, unfiltered, soil-contaminated water required more energy to electrolyze than non-filtered water. So if energy consumption is of significant concern, Ellie advises, then filtration before electrolyzing is probably wise.

Surprisingly, however, the unfiltered water electrolyzed more quickly than filtered. If time is of the essence, then dirty water may be best.

Ellie’s interest in exploring beyond our atmosphere is what led her to NCSSM, where she has access to the advanced physics courses she needed to get a head-start on her future lunar plans. She’s done so well that this year she is serving as a teacher’s assistant in NCSSM’s General Physics course. But it’s not the actual physics of space, nor its vast alien nature, that motivates Ellie the most. Rather, it’s the words of a leader who came and went nearly four decades before she was born. “I’ll paraphrase President Kennedy,” she says. “‘To move beyond our earth, that’s what will be remembered centuries from now.’ I think that’s really what appeals to me.” 

This Friday, NASA will beam Ellie into orbit — well, just her voice. When NCSSM alum and astronaut Christina Koch holds a live video Q&A from the International Space Station with NCSSM and N.C. State University students, Ellie will be at the microphone as one of the students selected to ask Koch a question.

Until she sets foot on our only permanent natural satellite, Ellie will continue to gaze upward in anticipation. “For years I’ve been looking up at the moon,” she says, imagining the spot where a future colony of earthly immigrants may reside. And she wonders: “How much water is up there? That’s really what I’m wondering. [But] as we get caught up in space exploration, I just hope that we don’t forget that Earth is really special, too.”