Astronaut presents hope

Pupils from the Cape Academy of Maths, Science and Technology with Dr Don Thomas.

Never give upon your dreams, a former NASA astronaut told schoolchildren who met him in Constantia last week.

Pupils from 18 government and private schools gathered at the Cape Academy of Maths Science and Technology last Thursday to listen to Dr Don Thomas.

They marvelled at the astronaut’s career and experiences, saying he had inspired them to boldly go into science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) careers.

“Never give up on your dreams” were the words that Dr Thomas repeated often to the youngsters from diverse backgrounds.

This is his sixth visit to South Africa for his national Space Tour. He said what stood out most for him about South African school pupils was that each year, when he would start off his presentation with a picture of astronauts on Mars, they would recognise that the picture was a symbol of themselves in the future and not of past astronauts.

“It is amazing that each year, these students see themselves going to Mars one day; they envision that future for themselves. My only hope is that the brave astronauts who will get to go to Mars one day will not be from one country; they will not be from America only, but they will be a representation of the whole world.”

Dr Thomas spoke about coming from a poor background himself and being raised with his three brothers by a single mother who was a typist.

“Things were not easy; at times we were on government assistance. I had to get a scholarship to study in college. It was not easy.”

He said that bearing in mind the socio-economic conditions in South Africa and the barriers so many children faced, he wanted to inspire students and prove to them that anything was possible with hard work.

Dr Thomas said he hoped his journey of many failures, taking him 33 years to finally become an astronaut, would inspire the students to always reach for their dreams.

Siyabulele Nxonongo, a Grade 11 at the Centre of Science and Technology in Khayelitsha, said he was amazed to experience things he had only learnt about in theory. It wasn’t ever day that someone who grew up in Site C Khayelitsha got to meet an astronaut, he said. And he had little exposure to cutting-edge technology at his school, he added.

“It often becomes hard to believe that your dreams could become a reality, especially because there aren’t many role models in the sciences from Khayelitsha.”

Siyabulela said he had only learnt about NASA last year after reading about it in a book from his school library.

“It’s crazy that a real-life astronaut from NASA stood in front of me. It was really cool.”

His classmate, Sikholise Swaartbooi, said only the top maths and physics pupils in their grade had been chosen to attend the talk, so she was very grateful for the opportunity and she had especially enjoyed the coding and aviation activities.

“We’re not exposed to these things. The closest I’ll get to them usually is from watching the Discovery Channel. This was really awesome.”

Claremont High School Grade 8 Uzziel Tauber said she wanted to become a neuroscientist one day because she had noticed there weren’t many female scientists, especially women of colour, and she wanted to inspire younger women.

“I’d really like to help people to discover what more they can do with their brains. I believe that we haven’t discovered their full potential.”

Her classmate, Mihaad Harris, said she had wanted to become a psychologist but after Dr Thomas’s talk, she was ready to sign up for astronaut training.

Lathitha Jozi, a Grade 7 at Gugulethu’s Litha Primary, said the food had been the best part of the day for her.

Lathitha said she had not met any astronauts before and thought they only existed in books.

“Now I want to go to space one day, but I also want to become a doctor because I see a lot of sick people in Gugulethu; I want to heal them. But my teacher says I still have a lot of time to decide what I want to be.”

Dr Thomas referred to the pupils as the “Mars Generation” because human travel to Mars is currently such a hot topic on the space agenda. He said the bright children he had spoken to on the day excited him for the future.

After his talk, a high-altitude balloon was launched from the CAMST. South African Weather Services chief liaison officer Robin-Lee Batties told the pupils that the balloon was used for aviation purposes and collecting weather data.

Usually the balloon is launched from the airport, but in celebration of the event and Dr Thomas’s visit, it was launched from the school.

The space tour was made possible by STEM-based educational NGO Living Maths. Dr Thomas is visiting Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban from September 11 to September 20. The tour is also celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon mission.