October 21, 2022

Michelle’s Pre-ASCEND Thoughts

I’ve asked our students who are attending ASCEND to share their thoughts about what they are looking forward to at this event, so I suppose it’s only fair I share my thoughts too!

Let me begin with, I have been looking forward to this year’s ASCEND conference since last year’s ended! No, I am not kidding. This event has become my favorite space conference of the year. ASCEND is a highly curated event with thought provoking and informative topics, very engaging speakers, and incredible opportunities for networking.

Last year we had the honor of bringing 4 of our students to experience this event and I know each and every one of them had an out of this world experience. Abi, Chirag, Kiera, and Skye made the most of every minute they had at the event. They capitalized on the chance to learn about what is going on in the space industry, meet future colleagues as well as potential employers, and be inspired by the great humans who are part of this amazing space industry which I think is honestly more of a family. And they got to meet each other! Last year our 4 students hadn’t ever met each other and after that week I know they all became great friends!

I loved hearing from each of them about the people they met (including Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen who each of them said they wish they could’ve talked to for hours!) and the things they learned. Watching the sparkle in their eyes as they shared with me about their ex-perience, my heart was filled with gratitude that AIAA made this opportunity available for each of them.

They even had the opportunity for some speed mentoring from Sirisha Bandla of Virgin Galactic… talk about out of this world advice being given!

But our students had an even bigger opportunity, they all participated in a Higher Orbits panel with Astronaut Greg “Box” Johnson and myself to share about their experiences and their research. Each and every one of them made me so proud with how poised, polished, and professional each of them was in their communication on a big stage. The opportunity for them to speak at a professional conference such as this one is a big deal! It’s an honor for me to be able to share the stage with each and every one of them!

So this year… the second year of ASCEND in person, I know it’s going to be even bigger and better (if that’s possible) than last year and I can’t wait to spend time with out of this world colleagues and friends. This year we are bringing Graham & Sophie to be part of a panel with us and for them to have the opportunity to learn and network like our students did last year. Unlike last year’s students, Sophie & Graham have actually met before. They met at IAC 2019 in DC where we had some stellar students come to support our booth at the event and partake in the conference. I am excited for them to be able to meet up in person again and talk about what has happened in their worlds since then.

I am REALLY excited about this panel because it’s different than anything we’ve done before… As I mentioned, I am a big believer that our space industry is really family and people who come into your universe even if your orbits stop crossing for a bit, they likely will cross again. Our industry seems huge but there are so many intersections that in some ways it’s not so big. Looking at my own experiences, I’ve experienced all of this.

As a freshman at Purdue University, myself and Chet Kumar convinced Professor Steven Collicott to be our advisor for the inaugural NASA KC-135 Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities when the call for proposals came out in 1996.

For Professor Collicott and Purdue this morphed into many things and for me it evolved into not just working for NASA (where I crossed paths with Dan Dumbacher) but now running Higher Orbits where our students are doing microgravity research. The mentorship I’ve received and continue to receive from these 2 amazing humans helps me to accomplish the things in the world I am working on (and worked on) and I hope that I can pay it forward with mentorship to Higher Orbits students. To come full circle, Professor Collicott has been selected to fly on Virgin Galactic with his research! It’s a story that is fun to tell on many levels from start to current (I won’t say finish because there is more to come for all of us involved) and I am excited for us all to share with our colleagues at ASCEND.

Our panel – Space Inspires STEMists, Researchers, and Explorers

Launch with us as Higher Orbits student panelists and key industry experts showcase the revolution of STEM mentorship across decades and discuss what it means to invest in the future of STEM through mentorship. Higher Orbits is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that creates an experiential learning lab for secondary school students across the United States that focuses on the multifaceted worlds of space exploration, research, and spaceflight to launch the next-generation workforce. Join this amazing session and learn how students are taking off on their STEM career journeys!


  • Michelle Lucas (that’s me!)
  • Professor Steven Collicott
  • Graham Shunk
  • Sophie Crowder
  • Dan Dumbacher

How does this all tie together? Well….

Professor Collicott was my professor and mentor at Purdue, I still to this day to consider him to be one of my greatest mentors and I value his guidance always.

Dan Dumbacher and I both worked at NASA and crossed paths there… he’s another fellow Boilermaker (Boiler Up!) and I have been grateful for his advice and mentorship over the years including now as he is in the role of Executive Director with AIAA where we get to work together more than ever.

Graham & Sophie are stellar students from Higher Orbits who I have the privilege of working with. The creation of Higher Orbits is a direct result of my experiences in life including my zero-g flight while at Purdue University and my work at Johnson Space Center.

I’m excited about the dialogue we all can have about our orbits crossing, mentorship, space and inspiration! Looking forward to seeing those of you at ASCEND at our panel and I can’t wait for us all to share with you more about it after the event!

Hey Space Peeps… Let’s go to Vegas!

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