Fifty years after the moon landing, and 22 years after he last went to space, former NASA astronaut Dr Don Thomas is on a new mission: giving South African learners a taste of the possibilities that await them in the not-too-distant future, from careers in space tourism to missions to Mars. One of the schools he visited, on his most recent tour of South Africa, was Christel House in Cape Town, which teaches children facing extremely challenging circumstances.
When asking youngsters around the world what they want to be when they grow up, many will tell you they want to become an astronaut. Things are no different at Christel House. Opened in 2002, the school helps transform the lives of underprivileged children from the Cape Flats whilst helping them reach for the stars.
The former North American Space Agency (NASA) astronaut told the children about his 1040 hours in space, between 1994 and 1997, during which he orbited planet Earth 692 times, travelling 28.3 million kilometres in the process.
Thomas’ visit formed part of the 2019 Living Maths Space Tour by South African educational NGO Living Maths, and he was brought to Christel House, courtesy of the Amdec Group, property developers who have been involved with the school for years. The annual Space Tour initiative allows children from all walks of life to think big and entertain the possibility of living an extraordinary, and perhaps even extra-terrestrial life. After all, South Africa is home to the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) and is part of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) initiative, an international effort to build the world’s largest radio telescope.
“The SKA is an incredible project and South Africa should be very proud of that accomplishment,” said Thomas, noting that the initiative and SALT are great motivators for young South Africans who are interested in all things space related, to pursue an education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (the so-called STEM subjects).
Christel House has a very proud academic record and Thomas said the school could very well be nurturing the next generation of astronauts and space scientists. “I saw a lot of excitement and sparkles in the kids’ eyes. Maybe some of today’s Christel House learners, part of what we call the Mars Generation, will be amongst the first humans to set foot on Mars in 20 or 25 years’ time. That would be amazing, and I hope I can see that day,” he said.
Shannon Mark, CSI Manager of the Amdec Group, agrees. “Christel House has consistently produced some of South Africa’s top matriculants, many of them young men and women who excel at STEM subjects,” he said. “They will go far in life, maybe much further than we can imagine.”
Thomas noted that the journey towards a career in space won’t be easy, but it shouldn’t stop them from chasing their dreams. “I dreamt of becoming an astronaut when I was just six years old, and it took me 33 years and a lot of hard work to get there. But I never gave up, even when I initially wasn’t successful at getting into NASA’s astronaut programme. Instead, I kept trying to improve myself,” he recalled. “My advice to young people in South Africa is, therefore, to work hard, do your best at school every single day, and never give up on your dreams, whatever they are. Keep your eyes on the stars!”
Whilst he knows his days in space are over, Thomas would go back in a heartbeat if he could. “If I had the chance to go back up, I would jump at it. I will never get tired of the beauty of space!”