Former astronaut Paul Lockhart, who flew two missions to the International Space Station 16 years ago, made an unusual promise to hundreds of Will Rogers students Wednesday morning.
“We, as Americans, are going to go back to the moon, and then, we’re going to go to Mars,” Lockhart said. “And guess what? If it’s somebody from Will Rogers that’s the first American to step on Mars, I will do back flips on my back porch and jump up and down.”
Part of his excitement stems from the school’s aviation connection. Its namesake, famed Oklahoma actor and columnist, was an early advocate for air travel. Lockhart is also beyond ready to see his country reach the next frontier.
Perhaps most of all, though, Lockhart wants to spark a desire for adventure and triumph in others.
The retired Air Force colonel is visiting Tulsa-area schools this week to talk to students about what it’s like to be an astronaut. His presentations are the most popular feature of Flight Night Space Week, an effort to encourage kids to pursue careers in STEM-related fields — science, technology, engineering and math.
Lockhart, a native of Amarillo, Texas, also made the rounds in Tulsa last year and in 2016.
For him, these visits are an opportunity to give kids the same inspiration he received long before becoming a NASA shuttle pilot.
“I met individuals that steered me in the right way,” he told the Tulsa World. “So I realize that I’m very fortunate to have had the success I’ve had, and now, it’s a great opportunity for me to go back and say, ‘You too can orient yourself, figure out what you want, and then, through hard work and planning and persistence, achieve what’s important to you.’”
Lockhart emphasized that message in a packed auditorium at Will Rogers College High and Junior High School as he guided students on a mission to the International Space Station from start to finish. The presentation featured footage from his trips to the artificial satellite while aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour.
He also answered questions from curious teens who were more than happy to take advantage of someone who experienced firsthand what they’ve only read about in books and online.
How do astronauts tell time in space? They use a clock that starts ticking immediately upon launch.
Can you see the Great Wall of China? No, it’s way too small.
How will humans survive months of living in microgravity on Mars? No idea. Traveling to the red planet is the easy part, Lockhart said. Staying alive after you get there is the real challenge.
Eighth-grader Gabriel Hernandez said he was fascinated to hear about flying a ship from a space center in Florida all the way to a space station in orbit.
“I really liked seeing how they were able to dock the shuttle at the space station,” Hernandez said.
Science teacher Amy Bryant said space lessons from an astronaut fall right in line with the curriculum currently being taught at the junior high.
Seventh-graders are studying astronomy, and eighth-graders are studying the electromagnetic spectrum.
“It really brings (outer space) to reality for them instead of something that is just abstract,” Bryant said.