As little kids, we often fantasize about becoming superheroes and legendary characters doing extraordinary things to help the world be a better place. We looked up to those whom we thought would fit the mold of ordinary people doing extraordinary things, from superheroes we see on TV to real-life heroes who serve our community: soldiers, teachers, policemen, doctors and etc. For those of us nerdy kids, the list includes scientists and astronauts. Well, mine definitely did along with paleontologists, engineers, and pilots. The incredible thing about astronauts is that they can be all of those things all at once--a true jack-of-all-trades and master of many more.
When I was a kid, I was often fascinated by others’ display of curiosity and courage, and for me, no other job exemplifies both quality traits than astronauts. Perhaps it was because as kids ourselves, we were just as curious and definitely have the courage to do what excites us. It’s how astronauts roll.
Astronauts play a crucial role in our quest to understand our place in the universe—they are the frontrunners of science, representing all of humanity as we explore the vast unknowns of space and beyond. They dedicate their careers and even sacrifice their lives selflessly in pursuit of science and exploration, from which we have all benefited from greatly. Their boldness to go to the frontiers of the unknown on our behalf has helped increase our knowledge of the universe and our planet, as well as created countless spin-off technologies that help provide solutions for challenges we face here on Earth--from developing life-saving medicine to engineering infrastructures that affect our everyday lives and our future. Astronauts, to me, are definitely the embodiment of the superheroes that I look up to and I feel so fortunate to have actually met some who have all the more inspired me.
When I signed up for my first Go-for-Launch event with Higher Orbits back in 2019, one of the major draws for me was the opportunity to meet a real-life astronaut. I remember how excited I was. You know how it is when you meet someone you’ve been dying to meet your whole life and it’s just so exciting you feel like a rocket ship getting fired up as it launches into the sky? That’s basically the feeling. And all that built-up excitement didn’t disappoint when I met my first astronaut mentor, Dr. Don Thomas.
“Astronaut Don” as we fondly called him, is truly a remarkable person who made my first Higher Orbits experience a memorable one. He shared stories about his many trips to space, his astronaut crews, and even about the infamous woodpecker that delayed one of his launches. Despite being a member of four STS missions, Astronaut Don was very down to earth and easy to talk to, the most impressionable thing about him and with many of the astronauts that I eventually met is their humble disposition (despite the fact that astronauts are indeed super smart and very accomplished than most of us). Like the other astronaut mentors, we have at Higher Orbits, Astronaut Don was the kind of person who simply exudes optimism and hope, inspiring those around him, especially star-struck kids like me. He has inspired me to chase after my dreams no matter what obstacles may get in the way, sharing his own experience when NASA turned down his astronaut application three different times before finally accepting him on the fourth try. Aside from having the opportunity to be mentored by him in our Go-for-Launch project, I had a few run-ins with him that really made me appreciate how incredibly thoughtful he is as an inspirational figure. When I attended Space Camp one year, he was the featured astronaut at the program and though I never expected him to remember me from Higher Orbits with the hundreds of kids he meets all the time, it really meant the world to me that he recognized me from among the crowd and picked up on our last conversation earlier that year. “Let’s take a selfie, I’ve got to show this to Michelle!” He exclaimed happily, beating me to it as I had earlier thought of asking him for a photo-op! I probably grew 5 inches taller that very moment and my face lit up like a solar flare. Astronaut Don has that kind of effect on people—he makes you believe in possibilities, that you, too, can be anything you want to be. In all the time that he mentored us, he always made us feel that we are capable of a lot of things. When I ran into him again later that year at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) and on several of our Space-At-Home webinars, Astronaut Don has always been a constant source of inspiration and encouragement to me and everyone he meets.
Another astronaut mentor that I am forever grateful to have met through Higher Orbits is Astronaut Mike Foreman. Astronaut Mike is definitely one of the most engaging people I have met. I was a little nervous when I asked him to join us for lunch during our Go-For-Launch event at Arlington. Turns out, he was one of the easiest people to talk to as he shared about his adventures on the ISS and the future of the space shuttle program over pizza! Anyone listening to him talk could definitely hear his passion for space and if I must say, that was probably the best lunch break, ever! So grateful for mentors like him who go out of their way to reach out and inspire others.
The great thing about Higher Orbits is, it doesn’t just give you the opportunity to be in Go-For-Launch events, moreover it gives you the opportunity to network with a host of space-rock stars in many ways. When Ms. Michelle extended the invite for students to attend the space congress, I never knew what to expect, but I was over-the-moon happy when I realized how it afforded me the opportunity to connect with so many people whose journeys have inspired me. While we often meet astronauts during Go-For-Launch events, I was fortunate enough to have come across one of our astronaut mentors at Higher Orbits during IAC. This chance meeting, although brief and unplanned, left quite an impression on me because when you meet astronauts, it really is an out-of-this-world experience. That’s what happened when I bumped into Astronaut Greg “Box” Johnson. I initially asked him to “autograph” some of my space postcards when he visited our Higher Orbits booth, but from there we got into talking about school, we sat down and he began asking me about my future plans, which then turned into a really interesting conversation as he shared his college experiences at USAFA and how that was instrumental into him becoming an astronaut. I was all ears as he gave me some valuable advice, knowing very well that it’s not every day you get college advice from someone of his caliber and experience. This meeting cemented my belief that astronauts really do care about the future--mine, theirs, ours. From what I have gleaned from all of the astronaut encounters I’ve had with Higher Orbits; this is their shared goal: inspire the next generation.
No one is more forward thinking than these incredible group of humans who understand the importance of carrying on the fire-of learning and exploration-to the next generation. Every astronaut I have met has always been willing to share their knowledge and experiences with the hope of igniting that spark of curiosity in someone. They understand that the future of our species and our planet lie in the delicate balance of having people who are passionately curious and brave enough to follow the path that they themselves have already paved for us.
To this day, I still find it surreal to have these kinds of conversations with the very people that I looked up to growing up. So, thank you, Higher Orbits, for making my childhood dreams come true and thank you for giving us this opportunity to celebrate these incredible role models on National Astronauts Day! Astronauts are indeed unsung heroes of our time. Their work and contribution, although not always the most celebrated, is invaluable in advancing humanity towards the future--a future that is inclusive, sustainable, and progressive. (Because that’s what superheroes do.)