The Lunar Caves Analog Test Sites program, called LCATS, builds on the discovery of underground pits on the moon in 2009 — 500-feet-wide holes on the surface of the moon — allowing students to explore the science behind the possibilities of using them as shelters for human habitation.

The WEX Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes space STEM education, partners with local school districts in an attempt to better reach economically disadvantaged students, underrepresented minorities and female students. Funds from NASA, the WEX Foundation, LiftFund, Astroport Space Technologies and private donors cover students’ tuition. For the upcoming school year, the majority of program costs will be covered by a $110,000 gift from the Kelly Heritage Foundation.

LCATS is usually a student’s first introduction to space STEM or space science, said Kathryn Bolish, logistics manager for the WEX Foundation.

“What we’re really trying to do is not only introduce them to space science but build a passion they may already have for themselves,” Bolish said. “Aerospace or mechanical engineering, even programs like architecture or music, we’re able to put that in the LCATS program and show [students] their passions are applicable not only on Earth, but in space.”

Students who join the program will work on real challenges presented by NASA to Astroport. With engineering professionals, LCATS students made a lunar regolith simulant, a material replicating dirt on the surface of the moon.