I had the privilege last week to be involved in the Mission Discovery Ayrshire 2016 challenge, hosted by Ayrshire College at its superb Ayr Campus. I say privilege, and I don’t use that word lightly as it was one of the most inspiring events I have had the pleasure of witnessing in many years. If you’ve never heard of mission discovery, look it up!
Mission Discovery is a week-long educational programme developed by the International Space School Educational Trust (ISSET) people – and what people they are too! Former NASA astronaut Michael Foale CBE, NASA’s Assistant Chief of EVA, Robotics & Crew Systems, Sarah Murray, Dr Julie Keeble of King’s College London and Chris Barber, Director of ISSET, made up the team who delivered the programme to 150 pupils from East, North and South Ayrshire secondary schools, and 50 Ayrshire College students.
This was an exceptional educational experience for the students involved as they learned all about space in the company of NASA leaders. As part of the week’s challenge, the student teams were tasked with designing and developing experiments that can be carried out in space. The winning team will see their experiment built, launched to the International Space Station and carried out by astronauts in space! So this was more than just a theoretical exercise, it was a very real opportunity for the winning team to enhance man’s understanding of the workings of the universe.
I was fortunate enough to meet Astronaut Michael Foale personally, and what a remarkable character he is. Born in Lincolnshire to a British RAF pilot father and an American mother, Michael grew up in Cambridge, UK and various RAF bases around the world. After school Michael tried to follow his father’s footsteps in the RAF but was turned down. Undeterred, he followed his passion of Physics and eventually graduated from Queen’s college Cambridge with a first-class honours degree in natural sciences and a doctorate in laboratory astrophysics. As Michael left university with ‘two pairs of jeans, a donkey jacket, a bicycle and a pilot’s licence’, his friend Stephen Fry mocked his ambition of going to space. But after two unsuccessful attempts at joining the NASA astronaut programme, he was finally accepted in 1987, and ‘go to space’ he did.
Michael went to space six times as part of the NASA Shuttle programme, was commander on one of the missions and had extended visits to the Russian MIR and ISS space stations. He was also involved in man’s first collision in space whilst on MIR when the station was struck by a cargo resupply vessel, causing a rupture of the outer skin and rapid decompression in the space station. Using knowledge from his physics degree, Foale made calculations of how the stars were moving past his fixed-point thumb reference on a window, and was thus able to advise Russian ground control of how to stop the resulting roll, saving his own and the lives of his two cosmonaut colleagues.
Michael is now passing on his ‘we can achieve anything’ attitude to the youngsters he meets. His enthusiasm is infectious and it is easy to see how the students are inspired by him. Only time will tell how many of them will now follow his lead and end up as the next generation of Britons in space.
Talking of inspiration, I also feel honoured to have met Sarah Murray during the week. Sarah, the daughter of a Coca-Cola bottle filler and a domestic help, is a black American lady who with the support of her parents climbed her way out of an impoverished childhood, had an impressive military career and against all the odds ended up as NASA’s Assistant Chief of EVA, Robotics & Crew Systems, responsible for the safety of all astronauts while making space walks. I was privileged to sit next to her during dinner one evening and was absolutely overwhelmed by her life story. What a woman! And now, with a successful career, several loving children and grandchildren behind her, like Michael, she is putting that same life energy into helping to inspire youngsters around the world to succeed. A true inspiration indeed.
The Mission Discovery’s stated objectives are to inspire and motivate young people through STEM and space exploration. They look to provide ordinary people with the opportunity to achieve something extraordinary and instil the NASA ‘you can do it’ spirit!
In my opinion, they certainly achieved that last week.