Learners encouraged to reach for the stars

Former Nasa astronaut, Dr Don Thomas, with some of the learners who attended his talk given at Cape Academy of Maths.
Former Nasa astronaut, Dr Don Thomas, with some of the learners who attended his talk given at Cape Academy of Maths.

The chances of getting your average teenager to sit quietly and listen attentively for 45 minutes are slim. Throw in another 199 of his or her peers and those odds go up to astronomical.

But that is exactly what former Nasa astronaut Dr Don Thomas did at the Sakhikamva Foundation’s Stream laboratory at Cape Academy of Maths, Science and Technology on Thursday 12 September.

Addressing 200 learners from 16 schools across Cape Town, Thomas inspired the next generation of astronauts with his exciting stories.

One of his anecdotes that had learners hanging on his every word was his description of his first launch on 8 July 1994.

“After four years of training, it was time to head to space. About three hours before launch, I strapped into my seat aboard Space Shuttle Columbia. I was laying on my back on top of a lumpy parachute, and while not very comfortable, it didn’t matter to me one bit,” he said.

Thomson described how, six seconds before lift-off, the space shuttle’s three main engines ignited and came up to full power.

“Then right at the moment of lift-off, our two large and powerful solid rocket boosters ignited and we were on our way.”

He said he could hear the roar of the engines and feel the shaking and vibration as the engines came up to full power.

“The lift-off felt as if someone had their hand in the middle of my back and was pushing me directly upward. Feeling this push, I knew I was finally on my way to space. After dreaming of being an astronaut for nearly 33 years, it was now my turn ... For the first few seconds, I was screaming inside my helmet ‘yahoo!’”

After the talk, everyone gathered outside to watch the launch of a high altitude balloon used to collect data around weather conditions for aviation purposes.

Fatima Jakoet, a founder of the Sakhikamva Foundation, which hosted the event in partnership with Living Maths, said the “Mars Generation” needed to be encouraged, inspired and exposed to the aerospace industry.

“An opportunity to engage with a real-life astronaut is just what they need to spark their imagination and confidence in being the next generation of space scientists,” she said.

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