Published by Krugersdorp News, September 30, 2019.
More than 400 learners quietly sat in the Skyhawk Aviation hanger at the Lanseria Airport on 17 September, waiting to meet a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) astronaut in real life.
Dr Don Thomas visited the Sakhikamva Foundation STREAM lab as part of I-Innovate’s 2019 Living Maths Tour. Don has been travelling the country, speaking to learners about what it is like in space and the future of space technology.
Before meeting him, the children and other attendees got to meet Pepper, a semi-humanoid robot. Pepper greeted the learners and introduced I-Innovate’s CEO, Trisha Cookes.
Pepper was born in France five years ago and today there are 12 000 Pepper robots around the world, six of them in South Africa.
Finally it was time for the learners to meet Don. He told them that he first realised he wanted to be an astronaut at the age of six, when the first Americans were launched into space.
“That day I knew, if I wanted to go to space in a rocket, I had to work really hard,” he said.
After finishing school, he obtained his bachelors degree in Physics. He did not stop there and finished his Masters degree as well.
Every two or three years NASA recruits new astronauts. Don applied and failed twice. On his third try he made the short list, only to be shot down in the end.
Don then started looking at the qualifications the astronauts had. He took flying lessons, did skydiving and eventually even started working for NASA as an engineer.
On the fourth try he was chosen. Don was part of four space missions that lasted two weeks each. The crew he was part of would orbit the Earth and try different experiments to see what the results were in space.
He told the learners how it only takes two and a half days for astronauts to get from Earth to the Moon. It only takes eight and a half minutes to reach outer space and at 300 kilometres above Earth, they were travelling at seven kilometres per second. It took them one and a half hours to orbit Earth and they saw 16 sunsets and sunrises in twenty four hours.
Flames they burn in a cylinder in space don’t burn up, plant roots don’t grow downwards, they grow in all directions, and everything is secured with Velcro, he said.
He showed them the food astronauts eat and explained how drinking water and sleeping works. He said Neil Armstrong came to see one of his launches, and spending an hour with Neil was one of the highlights of his career.
Afterward the learners and audience could ask questions and one child asked Don what his favourite mission was.
He said that on his second mission a woodpecker had made 250 holes in the insulation of their rocket. This one woodpecker had set back their launch date by a month. To this day their crew is known as the Woodpecker Team, and he was proud to be part of the team.
He finished by telling the children to dream big and work hard because they are the future of science on Earth.