Determined grad shoots for the stars

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Bailey Eaton was a standout in both cross country and track at Whitefish High School.

 Editor’s note: This is the last in a series recognizing talented graduates from the senior class of 2011. The Inter Lake has created its own “senior award” for each graduate.

 Bailey Eaton was a sixth-grader when the dream was born.

Tim McGunagle was her science teacher at Whitefish Middle School and George W. Bush was in the White House. The president was advocating expanding NASA’s budget and further exploring the solar system, topics that tied neatly into McGunagle’s space unit.

“George Bush reinspired the whole thought of a Mars mission,” McGunagle said. “I told my students: ‘The astronauts that are going to be walking on Mars, if that comes about, are your age right now. They’re sitting in fifth- and sixth-grade classes right now, and girls and guys will be eligible for that trip.”

The idea of stepping onto the Red Planet gripped Eaton’s imagination and refused to let go. Even now, as she prepares to graduate from Whitefish High School, Eaton hasn’t forgotten when she first realized she wanted to be an astronaut.

“We were talking about the first man on the moon,” she said. “I wanted to be the first woman on Mars.”

While she still wants to journey into space, Eaton’s goal has shifted somewhat in recent years. She will study aerospace aeronautics at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., starting this fall, and hopes to go on to work for NASA or Boeing.

Eaton said her mother, Maraika, is more comfortable with that goal than with the idea of her daughter traveling, at minimum, more than 30 million miles away.

“My mom always said I wasn’t allowed to go that far away from home,” Eaton said. “I said, ‘OK, then I’ll work for NASA.’”

Pursuing an engineering degree is more practical than becoming an astronaut, she added — although if she got the opportunity to journey into space, Eaton might not be able to pass it up.

“It’s too intriguing to not do it,” she said.

Eaton has long loved adventure and is a self-confessed adrenaline junkie. She was a member of Whitefish Mountain Resort’s freestyle snowboard team and she “cannot wait to jump out of a plane.”

“I’m in it for the competition, I guess,” she said.

That drive to push herself was perhaps never more evident than last fall, when Eaton collapsed just shy of the finish line in the girls cross-country state championship race. She refused to quit, even when her legs wouldn’t support her, and when she crawled across the finish line, Whitefish won its fourth straight state title.

“That’s Bailey. She’s determined,” McGunagle said. “She’s always been like that.”

The experience taught Eaton that she could do anything she set her mind to.

“There are no limits. Don’t put a limit on yourself because you don’t have the opportunity at the moment,” she said. “Put the effort forward. If you have the goal and believe you can do it, you can.”

It’s an attitude that should serve her well in college. Eaton, who also was on the track team, will run cross country and indoor and outdoor track at Embry-Riddle.

“It’s a lot of running, all year round,” she said.

It will keep her busy, but she’s used to balancing school and extracurricular activities. When she wasn’t running or snowboarding, Eaton filled her hours out of school in the Feat by Feet tap ensemble. She also was active in Whitefish High School’s chapter of National Honor Society, serving as treasurer last year and president this year.

Eaton studied hard to maintain a 4.0 grade-point average throughout high school. She took several upper-level classes, including AP Calculus and physics, that have helped prepare her for classes at Embry-Riddle.

“I enjoy doing math and science work more than other types of schoolwork,” she said.

That interest might be due in part to McGunagle’s influence in sixth grade.

“I like to particularly focus on girls in class, in math and science, and try to push them,” he said. “In their sixth-grade year, they start to think boys are better at math and science.”

McGunagle said that was why he emphasized the idea that exploring Mars could be a future career for men and women.

Eaton said she has never encountered any surprise from people who find out she is interested in engineering and aerospace aeronautics.

“Most people’s reaction is, ‘That’s going to suck. You’ll have so much calculus,’” she said. “But I’m excited about the advanced math.”

She said she was eager to start pursuing her aerospace aeronautics degree.

“I’m most excited to be studying something I’m really interested in, where all my studies are working toward a specific goal,” she said.

Eaton hasn’t entirely given up her dream of traveling to Mars.

She plans to get her pilot’s license and may one day become an astronaut. She can’t resist the adventure the solar system has to offer.

“It’s the great unknown, I guess,” she said. “The vast expanse, the idea that there is so much out there, so much unknown.”

Reporter Kristi Albertson may be reached at 758-4438 or at kalbertson@dailyinterlake.com.

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