Reaching for the stars: Space-themed program touches down in Leominster


By David Dore
Leominster Champion
August 26, 2016


Former NASA astronaut Don Thomas, back left, and Michelle Lucas, back right, founder and president of Higher Orbits, stand with the 17 middle and high school students who took part in “Go for Launch!” last week at the Boys & Girls Club of Fitchburg and Leominster. 
David Dore photo

Former NASA astronaut Don Thomas, back left, and Michelle Lucas, back right, founder and president of Higher Orbits, stand with the 17 middle and high school students who took part in “Go for Launch!” last week at the Boys & Girls Club of Fitchburgand Leominster. David Dore photo

Before they could imagine going to space, about 15 middle and high school students had a few things to learn here on Earth — such as how to speak in front of a group, present materials and overcome nervousness.

“Everybody gets nervous,” Michelle Lucas said. “It’s just kind of natural.”

Lucas, a former International Space Station flight controller and astronaut instructor, urged them when speaking to an audience to make eye contact, speak loudly enough to be heard in the back of the room, change their rate of speech if necessary (depending on the situation and the part of the country they’re in), pause and breathe when needed (but don’t use filler words such as “um” and “uh” too much), and “keep it simple, but informative” in their talks and PowerPoint presentations.

As for overcoming nervousness, Lucas told them to take a deep breath, relax and trust their knowledge — or do what works for them.

And, she said, don’t forget to smile.

“It makes everybody smile back at you, which can help with your nerves,” Lucas said.

The 17 students listening to Lucas Monday, Aug. 15 were part of “Go for Launch!” at the Boys & Girls Club of Fitchburg and Leominster. This was the first time Higher Orbits brought “Go for Launch!” to Massachusetts.

The Aug. 15-17 program used space exploration to teach teamwork, communication and leadership, as well as interest students in careers in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and art.

The five teams, with names like Jamal’s Rocket, Alpha Savages and Winnahs, took what they learned this Monday afternoon in Leominster and applied it over the next couple of days. Their goal was to come up with an idea for an experiment that could be performed on the International Space Station. They presented their ideas Wednesday to a panel of judges, which picked one middle school and one high school project that moved on to a national competition — and a chance for their project to be brought into space next year.

As the students brainstormed, they remembered other advice that Lucas (founder and president of the nonprofit Higher Orbits) gave them, such as not criticizing team members’ ideas.

“Even if it sounds crazy,” she said, “toss it out there.”

According to retired astronaut Don Thomas, who spoke to the students earlier on Monday, what they learned from Lucas would be useful both at “Go for Launch!” and well into the future.

“When I was their age, I never had to get up and talk in front of anybody,” Thomas recalled Monday afternoon. “I think through my whole K-12 learning experience I maybe had to get up once or twice to do a book report, but never had to get up and present an idea. I wish I had had that experience, because that is a real-life experience you need in just about any profession. You’re going to have to get in front of people and talk about what you did or what you’re planning to do, or why you did something.”

While they were learning skills they could use at a job, Thomas said, “it’s important just to have fun here as well. We’re all about trying to get them excited in careers in math and science and engineering, for the future. We hope that they see that science is cool, this is fun to do, and we hope to inspire some of the young students, and say, ‘Hey, I never thought of that. I’d love to go work at NASA or I want to be a scientist developing experiments in the future as well.’”

Thomas also shared memories with the students of his time as an astronaut. He dreamed of being an astronaut starting at the age of 6. But, he said, it took four tries to get into the NASA program.

“The first three times I was turned down,” Thomas said, “so the important lesson I learned that I tried to share with the students is, you have to be persistent. You have to work hard and never give up on projects or dreams of whatever you want to work on in your life.”

Thomas went on four space missions. While being able to do “all kinds of gymnastics” in zero gravity was “pure fun,” he said, something else made a lasting impact on him.

“The coolest part of being up in space, I think for almost every astronaut, is looking back at planet Earth, and it changes your perspective of our planet,” Thomas said.

He remembered seeing from space breathtaking sights such as Mount Everest, the Great Barrier Reef and Victoria Falls — along with things like rainforests being cut and burned in South America, large open pit mines that are a few miles across, and polluted rivers.

“I used to say I was from Ohio — that’s where I grew up — and I would tell people I’m from Cleveland,” Thomas said. “Now, I tell people I’m from Earth, that I have more of a global perspective of our planet, and I see all of us — from the different states, different countries, different continents — we’re all on planet Earth together and we all need to take better care of this place. I don’t look at borders like I did when I was young.”