In a gymnasium on May 5, 1961, students of an elementary school in Cleveland, Ohio, gathered before a small black and white television. As one student watched on the day before his sixth birthday, it wasn’t just about seeing Alan Shepard become the first American in space; it was the moment he realized that he, too, wanted to do the very same.
“You have these moments of inspiration when you’re like that [as a kid] that change your life,” Dr. Don Thomas mentioned when reflecting on his inspiration to become an astronaut.
For Thomas, that moment, captured through a small screen, was the moment that propelled him forward to earn a Master of Science and doctorate in materials science and engineering from Cornell University. He did so because he knew that, in order to achieve his dream of entering space, he would have to work and study hard.
To help young kids feel inspired just as he did, Thomas mentioned that he teams up with WonderWorks via the WonderKids program to visit schools across the U.S. The hope behind such efforts is that students can hear firsthand about the experiences of an astronaut while motivating students to learn more.
In its first year launching the WonderKids program in Orlando, WonderWorks collaborated with Thomas to visit schools across the Central Florida area on April 25 and 26, including Lake Nona’s very own Sun Blaze Elementary School.
The program allows teachers to nominate students so that they can meet astronauts like Thomas. In meeting those who have visited space, the aim is to create a passion for science, according to Brian Wayne, the manager of WonderWorks Orlando.
On April 27, at the WonderWorks attraction, a ceremony was held to honor the nominees from all across Central Florida. After being honored individually, teachers of the nominated students, family members, and the students themselves were able to listen to Thomas’ presentation. Thereafter, they were all given the chance to meet him and receive his autograph. Students were then allowed to spend time at the attraction for free, courtesy of WonderWorks.
Thomas stayed until the end to meet each person waiting in line for him after sharing his story. From taking photos to signing autographs, he took his time to interact with all the students who wished to meet him. Thomas shared his enthusiasm for why he continues to share the same story over and over again, while meeting as many students as he can.
“Did you see the energy in those kids? This is why I do this. They’re the Martians of the future,” Thomas mentioned.
Right before leaving NASA 12 years ago, Thomas was looking for the next step in his future. With the program, Thomas was previously able to visit schools to excite students in subjects like math and science. These school visits had energized him, so he chose to continue these efforts after leaving.
“There hasn’t been a single day that I said, ‘Why did I ever leave NASA?’” Thomas said.
When presenting to different age groups, Thomas mentioned he always ensures that he speaks in a way that allows each group to understand accordingly. However, the general story is the same.
He makes it a point to stress the idea that a person shouldn’t ever give up regardless of what obstacles they face. Those obstacles were what allowed Thomas to receive the opportunities he did.
Thomas first starts by informing the crowd of his credentials, including the fact that he has been able to orbit Earth 700 times. He then shares the story of how he got to visit space, a story that includes some failure. Even after getting turned down from the astronaut program four times, Thomas still decided to stay motivated. After his fourth rejection, he was finally asked to participate in the program. Thomas shares the experiences of being in space, and especially for younger groups, he energizes them to consider the idea of being the first astronauts on Mars.
Even though it was the first year of the WonderKids program in Central Florida, Thomas hopes to return to continue motivating and inspiring as many people as he can. Having been able to fulfill his dream of visiting space, visiting schools is a passion that leads to a newer dream of his.
Thomas said, “My ultimate dream would be one day, 25 years from now, I get a phone call or letter from somebody that says ‘I just got back from Mars. You visited my school in Orlando 15 or 20 years ago, and that was the moment for me that I said I want to be an astronaut.’”