Former astronaut tells Maryvale students to aim high, literally and figuratively

On the long journey that led to four space shuttle missions with NASA, Don Thomas faced a litany of rejections and doubts before finally being accepted into the astronaut program.

These days, he has no intention of adding to his 1,000 hours in space. Instead, Thomas was at Maryvale Preparatory School in Brooklandville on Monday, Dec. 10, continuing his new calling — sharing the possibilities of a career in science, technology, engineering and math, also known as STEM subjects.

Thomas, who began as director of Towson University's Hackerman Academy of Mathematics and Science in 2007, said his astronaut status gets his audiences' attention and allows his message to sink in.

"I told them how I became an astronaut, how I wanted to do it since I was 6 years old and did my best in school, went to college and it took me four times applying to get in," Thomas said.

"The fourth time, I finally made it in, and I was 39 years old when I first flew in space," said Thomas, a Hampton resident. "That's probably the most important message I try to leave with them — this stuff is hard and it will take a while, but man, it's worth it in the end."

During his hour-long presentation in the school auditorium, Thomas showed what worth it meant to him.

Beginning with those rejections, he told the students about the training process for his first mission, which involved two years of astronaut school and an additional year or two for mission-specific training. He likened the preparation to another stint in college, right down to the exams to ensure everything was being absorbed.

After getting into his background, Thomas used a PowerPoint to take the girls through a typical shuttle mission.

Thomas described liftoff as the sensation of someone putting their hand on your back and pushing you up to the sky, and joked that the eight-and-a-half minute trip through the atmosphere was quicker than most students' drives to Maryvale, or his own attempts to find a parking spot at Towson University.

Three of Thomas' missions were for the purpose of science experiments, while another was to launch a satellite into orbit.

The astronaut shared many tales from his time in space. He explained the daily rituals of life in orbit, from the hour of exercise required and the steady diet of space food to how they slept, cleaned and even went to the bathroom.

Teacher Nataliya Goodman organized the visit with Thomas. She said she used to visit with the astronaut with her physics class at nearby Mercy High School, and that his charisma and passion for STEM education was readily apparent.

"He's bringing the girls so much experience," Goodman said.

As part of his role at the Hackerman Academy, which aims to drum up interest in STEM subjects for children and foster the next generation of scientists, Thomas said he aims to highlight women and minorities in each of his presentations.

During a weekly Saturday science class he puts on at Towson University, he said he likes to have the speakers be representative of anyone who might pass through the class.

"When I do this talk, I highlight the women in my mission, because the old school (thought) was only male astronauts going into space," he said. "It's not like that any more, but a lot of people don't appreciate that. I want the young women here to know all these careers are open to any gender."

Because of that, Thomas was able to tell students at the all-girls school that "the next person who's going up in space is one of the girls in this room here."

"I really find this rewarding," he said after the presentation. "I feel I was lucky to do what I wanted to do, and if I can help the next generation at the university with their STEM outreach program, that's really rewarding to me."

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