Retired NASA astronaut encourages students to chase their dreams

Posted at 10:22 PM on Jan 4, 2019

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Former NASA astronaut Donald Thomas speaks to Lake Norman Elementary School students on Friday about what it’s like to live and work in space. He also highlighted the importance of pursuing your dreams.

BY KARISSA MILLER

Decked out in his blue flight suit, retired NASA Astronaut Donald Thomas showed students at Lake Norman Elementary School some photos from outer space, including one of their school, on Friday morning.

“On a nice sunny day here on Planet Earth, you look up at the sky and it looks like it goes on forever and ever,” Thomas explained. “From space we see the atmosphere. It looks just like you see here -- like a paper-thin layer.”

“Oohs!” and “Ahhs!” were audible as the former astronaut showed pictures he took of the Pacific Ocean followed by the eye of a Category 3 hurricane and a volcano in Indonesia.

He told students he’s seen the Great Barrier Reef, Amazon Rain Forest, Mount Kilimanjaro and so many more amazing sites from outer space.

He also showed pictures and described what it’s like to live and work in space. In 1997 he became the first astronaut to bring a pepperoni pizza into space.

During his 20-year career with NASA, including 17 as years, Thomas, was aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia three times and Space Shuttle Discovery once. He spent a total of 44 days in space.

He completed nearly 700 orbits of the Earth and traveled 17.6 million miles in the process.

Thomas, who grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, told students that being an astronaut was his first and only career choice.

“I wanted to be an astronaut since I was six years old,” Thomas, now 63, recalled. “I watched the first American launch into space in 1961. I knew at the moment, that’s what I wanted to do.”

Watching early astronauts such as Alan Shepard, John Glenn and Neil Armstrong blasting off into space made him want to follow their footsteps.

Despite his passion for space, the odds weren’t always in his favor.

In an interview, Thomas said that around the age of 8, his parents divorced and his dad took off. His mom, who was a homemaker, went back to school and became a bookkeeper.

“I grew up in a single-parent household. We were on food stamps when my mom was laid off, but that didn’t hold me back from doing what I wanted to do,” he said.

Thomas highlighted the importance of making good choices in school.

“Work hard and do your best in school every single day in all of your subjects,” he said.

“You never know what you’re learning today … how that’s going to help you in the future,” he added.

In order to become an astronaut, Thomas told students that earning a four-year degree in the math, science, engineering and medical field is the first step. He earned a degree in physics.

You have to be in good health, he said, and must learn how to treat various illnesses and problems as there is not always a doctor onboard the space station. Thomas told students that he learned how to extract teeth if needed.

He said it took a long time and a lot of hard work to become an astronaut.

“NASA turned me down three times,” Thomas said, “They never told me why they turned me down. They aren’t going to tell me that. I needed to figure it out.”

While it’s not required, experience as a pilot is another useful skill. Thomas learned how to fly in an effort to improve his chances of being accepted in the program.

On his fourth attempt to get into the space program, he was successful. He then entered a four-year training program and went to space for the first time at age 39.

Thomas told students that if they don’t succeed in their career choice the first time to learn what they can do to improve your chances.

Most importantly, he told them, never give up on your dreams.

At the close of the assembly, Thomas presented Principal Nichole Tilley with a tiny piece of Mars.

“My challenge to you is bring back a bigger piece in the future,” he told the students.

Thomas is a professional speaker who hopes to inspire students to reach for the stars, the moon and beyond.

The school was able to have him speak to students after teacher Yamil Ardila wrote and won the Kennedy Space Center Summer of Mars Grant. The purpose of the grant is to inspire the next generation of space explorers.

“I’m so proud of bringing that opportunity and experience to our children. Some of them want to be astronauts when they grow up and this experience will make them feel that everything is possible,” Ardila said.

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