Phoenix, MD (November 20, 2007) — A man in blue coveralls pointed to the image projected on a screen in Jacksonville Elementary School's cafeteria Nov. 20 and asked the assembled fourth- and fifth-graders a question:"Do you know who these people are?"
On the screen was an artist's rendering of two figures in space- suits, standing next to a spacecraft on the surface of Mars.
"They're you," the man said.
The speaker was Donald Thomas, director of the Hackerman Academy of Mathematics and Science at Towson University and a former astronaut.
"I was 39 years old when I first went into space," he told the students. "When this mission takes place, you'll be the right age to be on it."
He was 6 in 1961, when Alan Shepard became the first American in space and knew immediately that he wanted to be an astronaut, Thomas said.
Thirty-three years later, he completed the first of four space flights as a mission specialist. One was aboard the space shuttle Discovery; three were aboard the shuttle Columbia.
"His job is to get kids interested in science," said Emily Erwin, one of the interns.
Part of that job involves putting the science of space flight into terms familiar to young students.
With a laser pointer, Thomas located the cargo bay in a photo of a space shuttle.
"If we wanted to, we could put one of your school buses back there and launch it into space," he said.
When he showed a picture of himself riding a stationary bike in the shuttle for exercise, he called attention to the window just above the bike and said, "As you're riding the bike, you just might see Australia go by."
He added, "Even if you had a TV in space, you wouldn't watch it. You want to spend every moment you can looking out the window."
Jacksonville Elementary Principal Debbie Glinowiecki said her students learn about space in fourth grade and were eager to attend the presentation.
"Oh, my goodness, yes," she said.
From Thomas, fifth-grader Maddie Ulevich said she learned "it'd be cool to be an astronaut."
If a child told him she wanted to become an astronaut, Thomas said he would advise her, "Never give up applying."
He applied four or five times before he was accepted into the program, he recalled.
"A few people get in the first time, but not most," Thomas said.
He still loves to watch launches online or on television.
But if he had to choose between a launch or talking with students, he said, "I'd do this."
Written by Jay Thompson and reprinted with permission from the North County News