Former astronaut captivates the students at Liberty STEM Academy

Former astronaut, Col. Paul S. Lockhart, along with the Night Flight Team, visited Liberty Elementary S.T.E.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) Academy last Monday as part of Flight Night Space Week, a Tulsa Regional STEM Alliance event to develop the students’ interests and skills in technology, engineering, and mathematics. Col. Lockhart said, ”I touch all ages, from elementary to college. I do this for the children, continuing the interest they have in science.”

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“I was a fighter pilot, test pilot, then an astronaut,” Lockhart said. “I went into space twice. I live in Washington, D.C. Coming back to Middle America invigorates me and this is exciting for the kids. I do these programs because someone did the same for me.”

When asked about the future of NASA, he replied, “Commercial ventures can be support (the larger ventures). Large expeditions, that will only be done by the government. First will be the Moon, then Mars. We need to develop our launch vehicle capability. We have not flown a launch vehicle since the shuttle program ended (2011). America will be a leader.”

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After his presentation with the students, we caught up with Lockhart to ask a few questions:

What are your thoughts on countries like India, Japan, and China accelerating their space programs, such as China landing a vehicle on the dark side of the moon?

CL: “We have merely plateaued. We laid the groundwork. They are building on our shoulders and using our learning curve. We can learn from them. We need to be in the forefront.”

How do you feel about the anti-science sentiment in this country leading to skepticism about vaccines, climate change, and evolution?

CL: “It is important that our teachers instill in the students that science is objective, based on facts and evidence.”

What are your thoughts on the new head of NASA, Jim Bridenstine?

CL: “I think he has a healthy perspective and has credibility across multiple agencies.”

Have you ever watched “The Big Bang Theory”? In particular, the episodes where the character Howard Wolowitz becomes an astronaut?

CL: “No, but my friend, Mike Massimino, was the American Astronaut who trained the actor, Simon Helberg (Howard Wolowitz), and appeared in the episodes.”

The former astronaut began the presentation by asking the children if they knew how fast you had to go to break free of the Earth’s gravity. He then told them it was 18,000 MPH.

Smiling, he told them, “You now know something your parents probably don’t know.”

Asking for volunteers to participate in an exercise simulating docking with the International Space Station, he had the kids hold cut-outs of the Sun, Moon, Earth, the Shuttle, and the Space Station. He instructed the kids holding the cutouts to walk around like they were orbiting. He finished the exercise by simulating a docking of the shuttle to the Space Station.

Afterwards, Lockhart showed stills and video clips starting with the launching of the shuttle, to docking, and then living aboard the International Space Station. The children sat there enthralled as Lockhart explained how things worked and what different pieces of equipment were. The kids saw video of a volcano as seen from the Space Station, an astronaut walking in space, and a moon-set as seen from the space station. The kids soaked up this information like sponges.

After finishing the presentation, Lockhart exclaimed, “You are now trained astronauts!”

He then opened up a question and answer session. One person asked what food the astronauts ate. He told them fresh food such as apples and oranges, (No bananas, because there was no place to dispose of the peels), dehydrated foods, tortillas, and peanut butter. An inquisitive student asked what he did with the orange peels. “Since I was the pilot and in charge of the bathroom, I put them in a plastic bag, cut holes in the bag, and hung it up in the bathroom as an air freshener.”

When some asked about how they slept, Lockhart replied that they slept in sleep-sacks with hooks. “One time, I woke up from a sleep and saw my crewmates had their arms fully extended during sleep since there is no gravity.”

“They looked like Zombies,” he said. The children got a good laugh out of that.

At the end of the program, Col. Lockhart placed a call to Dr. Griffin (the former administrator of NASA). “What’s that, sir? Okay, I will tell them…goodbye.” He turned to the students and told them that NASA is going back to the Moon and then to Mars and is looking for astronauts. He said that “someone in the room right now could be the first boy or girl to walk on the Moon or Mars.”He then asked, “How many of you would like to be an astronaut?” Nearly all of the children raised their hands.

In closing, Col. Lockhart told them that if this is something they are interested in, these are things they need to do: be excited about everything they learn; whatever they do, do well; and learn to work with their teammates.