“If you forget everything else I told you here today, the one thing I want you to remember is to never give up on your dream,” Thomas told about 235 eighth-graders in the school’s auditorium Tuesday.
After spending more than nine years in college, taking additional training and submitting four applications to NASA, Thomas was accepted into the space agency’s astronaut program. By then, he was 35 years old. He went on his first space shuttle mission at age 39.
“I know many of you have dreams of what you want to do after you get out of high school, after college. Never give up on that dream. If you guys work hard, as I told you, I’m convinced you guys can do whatever it is that you want and achieve ... any objective you’d like to in life as well,” Thomas said.
Thomas, 58, became an astronaut in 1991 and went on four Space Shuttle missions, logging more than 1,040 hours in space, according to his biography at NASA’s website.
He retired from NASA in 2007 and became director of the Willard Hackerman Academy of Mathematics and Science at Towson University, according to the academy’s website.
Thomas said he visits about 70 Maryland schools a year, encouraging students to study science, technology, engineering and math; to be excited about STEM careers, and to pursue their dreams.
He also tells them it’s hard work, but it’s worth it.
“It’s all about helping out this next generation ’cause these students represent our future,” he said. “This is the generation that’s going to Mars ... maybe going back to the moon, maybe they invent ... new fuel-efficient cars.”
Thomas showed students the photos he took through the windows of space shuttles — one of a dust storm over the Red Sea and another with plumes of smoke blowing over South America as timber rain forests were burned.
In an interview after a luncheon with students, Thomas said his trips to space dramatically changed how he views the earth and how such things as a dust storm blowing over the Atlantic Ocean and Brazilian rainforests being burned affect the entire planet.
“I think all astronauts come back from space with a better appreciation for how fragile planet Earth is and a commitment that we oughta take better care of this place,” Thomas said.
Asked what he thought about the cancellation of the space shuttle program and America currently not having its own spacecraft, Thomas said both made him sad.
“I think most of the astronauts are a little frustrated that they canceled the shuttle without having another vehicle ready,” Thomas said.
Thomas took questions from students during his presentation and answered more during a luncheon with about 20 students.
Science teachers Carolyn Holcomb and Jonathan Hibbert hosted Thomas at the West End school. Holcomb said Thomas had spoken to students at Visitation Academy in Frederick County, Md., where she previously worked.
“I think anything we can do to encourage our students into the STEM fields, we need to do it. It’s all about the kids,” Holcomb said.
Students asked Thomas what inspired him to become an astronaut. His reply, the early astronauts. Did he eat astronaut ice cream on the space shuttle? No, because crumbs weren’t allowed. Did he ever see the flames during the shuttle’s re-entry into the atmosphere? Yes, they were about 4 feet above his head, outside the window.
Thomas said the biggest scare he experienced while in space came during his third mission, when another astronaut smelled smoke on the shuttle 50 minutes before they were to land.
“For 10 or 15 seconds, I was as scared as I’d ever been before,” Thomas said.
Christian Harris, 14, who had asked Thomas what inspired him to be an astronaut, said that is also his career goal.
He wasn’t the only student at the luncheon who wanted a career in a STEM field.
Brandon Macias, 13, aspires to be an Air Force pilot, and Erin White, 13, wants to be a forensic scientist.
“I just like solving problems and putting things together,” Erin said.
Marissa Jackson, 13, asked Thomas if he had ever cried in space.
Thomas said he had “tears of joy” two to three days into his first mission when “it finally hit me where I was and that I had achieved my dream.”